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Think tanks

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A think tank (also called a policy institute) is an organization, institute, corporation, or group that conducts research and engages in advocacy in public policy.[1] Many think tanks are non-profit organizations, which some countries such as the United States and Canada provide with tax exempt status. While many think tanks are funded by governments, interest groups, or businesses, some think tanks also derive income from consulting or research work related to their mandate.[2] In some cases, think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors.

Of course, some think tanks are more legitimate than that. Private funding does not necessarily make a researcher a shill, and some think-tanks produce worthwhile public policy research. In general, however, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders.

"We've got think tanks the way other towns have firehouses," Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach says. "This is a thoughtful town. A friend of mine worked at a think tank temporarily and the director told him when he entered, 'We are white men between the ages of 50 and 55, and we have no place else to go.'"

"In 1970, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s." --George Lakoff [1]

Think tanks are funded primarily by large businesses and major foundations. They devise and promote policies that shape the lives of everyday Americans: Social Security privatization, tax and investment laws, regulation of everything from oil to the Internet. They supply experts to testify on Capitol Hill, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers, and appear as TV commentators. They advise presidential aspirants and lead orientation seminars to train incoming members of Congress.

Think tanks may have a decided political leaning. There are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money. One of the important functions of think tanks is to provide a way for business interests to promote their ideas or to support economic and sociological research not taking place elsewhere that they feel may turn out in their favor. Conservative think tanks also offer donors an opportunity to support conservative policies outside academia, which during the 1960s and 1970s was accused of having a strong "collectivist" bias.

"Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor's checkbook and are seldom publicized," notes Tom Brazaitis, writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet. Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds." So much money now flows in, that the top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the "soft money" contributions to the Republican party.

In the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 Democratic-inclined supporters sought to bolster funding for centre-left think tanks. "Scores of the US's richest people have pledged $1 million or more towards a new attempt to reinvigorate the American left and counter the powerful Republican political machine," writes David Teather in The GUardian (UK). "The money will be funnelled through an organisation called the Democracy Alliance which, according to a report in the Washington Post, will help fund a network of thinktanks and advocacy groups seeking to halt the shift to the cultural and political right." Democratic strategist Rob Stein, who organized the effort, thinks "there is a big imbalance in the amount of cash that goes into left and rightwing thinktanks. Over the past two years, he said, think tanks pushing the conservative agenda had received $295 million, while leftwing institutions were given just $75 million." [2]

A think tank's resident experts carry titles such as "senior fellow" or "adjunct scholar," but this does not necessarily mean that they possess an academic degree in their area of claimed expertise. Outside funding can corrupt the integrity of academic institutions. The same corrupting influences affect think tanks, only more so.

Think tanks are like universities minus the students and minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought. Real academics are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is often reversed at most policy-driven think tanks. As writer Jonathan Rowe has observed, the term "think" tanks is a misnomer. His comment was directed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, but it applies equally well to many other think tanks, regardless of ideology: "They don't think; they justify."


US Government

Government think tanks are also important in the United States, particularly in the security and defense field. These include the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Institute for Homeland Security Studies, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, at the National Defense University; the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College and the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

A Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) is a special category of think tank. As described by the National Science Foundation [3], FFRDCs are "R&D-performing organizations that are exclusively or substantially financed by the Federal Government and are supported by the Federal Government either to meet a particular R&D objective or, in some instances, to provide major facilities at universities for research and associated training purposes. Each center is administered either by an industrial firm, a university, or another nonprofit institution." The government funds, wholly or in part, activities at approximately 30 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). FFRDCs typically assist government agencies with scientific research and analysis, systems development, and systems acquisition. They bring together the expertise and outlook of government, industry, and academia to solve complex technical problems. These FFRDCs include the RAND Corporation, the MITRE Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Aerospace Corporation, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and other organizations supporting various departments within the U.S. Government.

The Department of Defense (DOD) sponsors ten FFRDCs, which are listed below with other North American think tanks. Many of these DOD FFRDCs, and the institutions that operate them, have used their privileged status, and tax dollars, to venture beyond their charters. Such ventures have incurred the wrath of the Professional Services Council (PSC), an association of for-profit consulting firms, which has fought the aggrandizement of FFRDCs since the early 1970s. PSC's task force on FFRDCs "is charged with the challenging task of containing [FFRDCs] and similar quasi-governmental entities that benefit from sole-source contracting or otherwise are subsidized unfairly by the federal government..." [4]. The efforts have paid off, to some extent, in tighter controls on the funding of FFRDCs and the types of research they are allowed to undertake.

Similar to the above quasi-governmental organizations are Federal Advisory Committees. These groups, sometimes referred to as commissions, are a form of think tank dedicated to advising the US Presidents or the Executive branch of government. They typically focus on a specific issue and as such, might be considered similar to special interest groups. However, unlike special interest groups these committees have come under some oversight regulation and are required to make formal records available to the public. Approximately 1,000 these advisory committees are described in the FACA searchable database.

Global examples

US Examples

Canadian Examples

UK Examples

Scottish Examples

European Examples


Australian Examples

(See also Think Tanks/Australia)


  • Think Tank Directory: A Guide to Independent Nonprofit Public Policy Research Organizations, Government Research Service, 2nd Edition, 2006. Profiles of over 1,100 think tanks in Washington, D.C. and the 50 states.
  • Alex Carey, "Taking the risk out of democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia", NSW Press/ Illinois Press, 1995.
  • Jacques Kinau, Start Your Own Tax-Exempt Think Tank : Effective Self-Defense Against Corporate and Political Donor Class Tax Predation, Institute for Research, May 2005. ISBN 0976443708
  • James A. Smith, Idea Brokers : Think Tanks And The Rise Of The New Policy Elite, Free Press, Reprint November 1993. ISBN 0029295556
  • Richard Cockett, Thinking the unthinkable: think-tanks and the economic counter-revolution, 1931-1983, Fontana Press, London, 1994. ISBN: 0006375863
  • David M. Ricci, The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks, Yale University Press, August 1994. ISBN 0300061234
  • Jean Stefaniac and Richard Delgado, No mercy: how conservative think tanks and foundations changed America's social agenda, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1996. ISBN 1566394694
  • James G. McGann and R. Kent Weaver, Think Tanks & Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action, Transaction Publishers, November 2002. ISBN 0765809524
  • Donald E. Abelson, Do think tanks matter?: assessing the impact of public policy pnstitutes, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2002. ISBN 0773523170
  • Andrew Rich, Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise, Cambridge University Press, April 2004. ISBN 052183029X

External links

  • Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, "The Ideas Industry", Washington Post. (The Ideas Industry column ran between July 2002 and April 2003 and has been discontinued but an archives of the columns is still accessible).
  • News from Reality: "The People We Pay to Think - a brief profile on the Rand Corporation and its links to the Carlyle Group.
  • National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: the Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, a research report from the (NCRP)[47], July 1997. A hard copy of the report can be obtained for $US25 from here
  • National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy,$1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, March 1999. A hard copy of the report can be purchased for $US25 from here
  • Dan Morgan, "Think Tanks: Corporations' Quiet Weapon", Washington Post, January 29, 2000; Page A1.
  • Robert Kuttner,"Comment: Philanthropy and Movements", The American Prospect, July 15, 2002. Excellent article relating "think tank" summit meeting between funders and four major conservative "philanthropies" -- American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Manhattan Institute -- observed by an invited guest "liberal". This is a virtual "how to" to build a movement.
  • Jill Junnola, "Perspective: Who funds whom?", from Energy Compass, October 4, 2002. Re neo-conservative think tank funding/funders.
  • Steven C. Clemons, "Thought Control", Tom Paine, November 19, 2003. "Money will always be part of the think-tank business. But when that money and the interests behind it lurk in the shadows of the policy debate, the nation's interests are put at risk."
  • Lawrence Soley, "Heritage Clones in the Heartland: Local think tanks' "research" comes pre-digested", EXTRA!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, September/October 1998.
  • Sharon Beder, "The Role of ‘Economic Education’ in Achieving Capitalist Hegemony", University of Wollongong, 2005.
  • Jacques Kinau, "Start Your Own Tax-Exempt Think Tank", Institute for Research, 2005.
  • Allen S. Hepner, "Next-Generation’ think-tank techniques can bolster issues management results", Impact, Public Affairs Council, October 2004.
  • Diane Stone, "Think Tanks and the Privatisation Band-Wagon", Manchester Metropolitan University, 1995.
  • Allen S. Hepner, "Next-Generation’ think-tank techniques can bolster issues management results", Impact, Public Affairs Council, October 2004.
  • Stephen Boucher, "Europe and its think tanks : a promise to be fulfilled", Notre-Europe, October 2004.
  • Andrew Rich, "War of Ideas: Why mainstream and liberal foundations and the think tanks they support are losing in the war of ideas in American politics", Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2005.
  • Amy Scott and Scott Tong, "Under the Influence: Think Tanks and the Money that Fuels Them", Marketplace, June 2-3, 2005. (Specific segments aired as part of this project are listed below).
  • Scott Tong, "Under the Influence: what you pay for", Morning Report, June 2, 2005. (This story, which runs for just over 3 minutes, is a brief review of the Olin Foundation and its influence).
  • Amy Scott, "Under the Influence: an idea takes hold", Marketplace, June 2, 2005. (This story, which runs for just under 8 minutes, is a review of the campaign to repeal the estate tax).
  • Amy Scott, "Under the Influence: exercising power", Morning Report, June 3, 2005. (This story, which runs for just over 3 minutes, is looks at the blurred role between lobbyists and think tanks).
  • Scott Tong, "Under the influence: left vs. right", Marketplace, June 3, 2005. (This story, which runs for just over 7 minutes, reviews the role of left and right wing think tanks).
  • David Teather, "Liberals pledge millions to revive US left", The Guardian (UK), August 8, 2005.
  • Chris Mooney , "Trust Us, We're Experts",, September 28, 2005.
  • Jim Boyd, "Editorial Pages: Why Courage is Hard to Find," Nieman Reports, Spring 2006.
  • J.H. Snider, "Mixing Advocacy, Scholarly Research and Journalism: Can the New America Foundation Square the Circle?", PR Watch, February 26, 2009.
  • Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory, "Think Again, Blogosphere to Mainstream Media: Get Off the Bus," Center for American Progress, May 21, 2009.
  • THE CURSE OF TINA by Adam Curtis

Other Related SourceWatch Resources

Think Tank research links

  • Think Tank Explosion: Growth of the Independent Think Tank Industry in the United States - Short white paper charting the dramatic increase in the number of independent U.S. think tanks since the end of World War II.
  • Think Tanks and Policy Centers at Lehman Social Sciences Library, Columbia University.
  • National Institute for Research Advancement internet search.
  • Heritage Foundation Database for Public Policy Experts and Public Policy Organizations.
  • International List of Think Tank links, National Institute for Research Advancement
  • Statistics of Think Tank Citations
  • Think Tanks 140+ cross-referenced newsfeeds related to Think Tanks


  1. See The American Heritage Dictionary. "Think Tank." 2000. and Merriam Webster's Dictionary. "Think Tank."
  2. Diane Stone 'Think Tanks and Policy Analysis', in Frank Fischer, Gerald J. Miller. & Mara S. Sidney (eds.) Handbook of Public Policy Analysis: Theory, Methods, and Politics, New York, Marcel Dekker Inc. 2006, pages 149-157.
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