In writing “The Ideas Industry,” I’ve found myself having to think harder about how philanthropic organizations have shaped/are shaping the marketplace of foreign policy ideas. This gives rise to an awkward point; there is not a ton of research on this, and some of the research that exists is a bit out there.

Fortunately, the latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics was just published, and there is a special symposium on the politics of organized philanthropy. Theda Skocpol wrote the intro, and boy, is she skeptical about current trends:

There was a time when bipartisan US foundations encouraged experimentation in ideas and the search for policy solutions to problems the majority wanted to solve. Those days are gone, in our era of widening economic inequalities, partisan polarization, and fierce political efforts to undermine any semblance of public problem solving. In my view, many of the empirical contributions to this symposium raise searing questions about the normative arguments that Reich makes in support of a strong role for private foundations in contemporary American democracy.

Skocpol is not the first scholar to make this point, but she’s definitely the most prominent. In the conclusion, Stanford University professor Rob Reich is somewhat more optimistic, suggesting that philanthropic foundations do possess a comparative advantage in the world of policy:

The institutional design of foundations allows them to operate on a different time horizon than the marketplace and the government. Because their endowments are designed to exist intergenerationally, foundations can fund higher-risk social-policy experiments. They can use their resources to identify and address potential social problems decades away or innovations the success of which might be apparent only over a longer time horizon. In short, unlike the marketplace and the state, foundations can “go long.” They can be the seed capital behind one important discovery procedure for innovations in effective social policy in a democratic society. When they operate in this mode, foundations are not merely compatible with but can enhance democratic purposes.

The entire issue — especially the essays by Kristin Goss and Steven Teles — is worth a read if you are curious about how philanthropic activists affect public policy in the United States.

There’s an awkward elephant in the room that pervades this discussion, however. It’s something so obvious that saying it out loud seems rude. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out: The trouble with social scientists studying philanthropic foundations is that social scientists are also funded and will continue to seek funding by such philanthropies. Heck, as I’m typing this, I’m receiving research support from at least two different philanthropic foundations. This fact can make researching them super-awkward. It doesn’t preclude the possibility of doing good research, but it’s a conflict-of-interest that needs to be acknowledged.

I’m honestly not sure if there’s a good solution to this conflict-of-interest question. A political scientist could choose to study philanthropies and then rely solely on government funding from the National Science Foundation. Given how that pot of money is getting squeezed, however, I’m not sure it’s a viable strategy. Relying solely on university support is tricky, because as institutions universities really like to get research grants. Asocial scientist could strive to be independently wealthy enough to abstain from seeking any outside support. And any social scientist who earns that kind of coin is probably not going to be a social scientist for much longer.

Perhaps the best solution is for the most senior scholars to focus on this problem. Those who are close to retirement can afford to do this kind of research without any fears of repercussions. That fact will also lend the research more credibility to scholars, like Skocopol, who are skeptical of the ability of philanthropies to contribute to public policy.