Think tanks are independent, nonpartisan, non-university-based organizations that conduct policy research. More than 300 think tanks in the United States and thousands of others around the world focus on domestic and foreign policy issues such as the economy, environment, welfare, social security, education, health care, governance, military technology, and global trade. The primary purpose of think tanks is to educate the public and policymakers through research relating to current policy issues. As 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations, U.S. think tanks cannot endorse political candidates or legislation. In practice, however, many newer think tanks walk a fine line, operating more like advocacy organizations than research institutes. The increasing politicization of think tanks and the shift toward advocacy and marketing has been a focus of current research on think tanks.
U.S. think tanks are guided by their mission statements and are focused on national, regional, or state issues. Varying widely in size and scope, think tanks can be run by a staff of two to five people on a small budget or house dozens of researchers with a budget in the tens of millions. Single-issue think tanks dedicate their efforts to the study of one topic, such as the environment or tax policy. However, the majority of think tanks focus on multiple issues, with several divisions dedicated to specific research areas. The funding for think tanks comes primarily from philanthropic foundations and donations from corporations and individuals, while a far smaller number of think tanks accept government grants.
Political scientists generally differentiate think tanks based on the nature of their work. Several different “ideal types” of think tanks are academic, contract research, and advocacy. Often referred to as “universities without students” academic think tanks are largely staffed by individuals holding doctorate degrees and have their agenda set by their researchers and funding source. Examples of academic think tanks include the Brookings Institution, Public Policy Institute of California, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Contract research think tanks are also staffed largely by Ph.D.s with their agenda set by the agency that contracts their work, in many instances federal or state government. Their work often involves the evaluation of existing policies and programs. Examples of contract think tanks include the RAND Corporation, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and the American Institutes for Research. Both academic and contract think tanks have a “muted ideology” and as such tend not to have a mission affiliated with a particular political perspective.
Advocacy think tanks, on the other hand, have staff with philosophical, political, or ideological leanings. Research positions are less likely to be filled by academics with Ph.D.s, and its directors set the think tank’s agenda. Examples of conservative think tanks include the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Hudson Institute, which generally advocate for limited government, free markets, private enterprise, and individual responsibility. Examples of liberal or progressive think tanks include the Economic Policy Institute, Center for American Progress, and the Center for International Environmental Law, which generally advocate for economic and social justice, racial equity, reproductive rights, and increased environmental protections.
Lengthy research reports and books are more typical of the publications produced by academic and contract think tanks, while advocacy think tanks put more emphasis on producing policy briefs, summary reports, thought pieces, and newsletters. This more condensed style of policy research is typical of think tanks that are interested in marketing their publications to policymakers and the media. Think tanks additionally hold conferences, give briefings to legislative committee staff, and testify as policy experts.
The earliest think tanks, founded at the beginning of the 20th century, include the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910, and Brookings Institute in 1916. These policy institutes, which would not be referred to as “think tanks” until decades later, were backed by Progressive Era reformers who believed that society could be improved through social scientific inquiry. Business interests often joined these “scientific reformers” in an attempt to direct government management away from corrupt politics and toward rationality and efficiency, while at the same time asserting their interests.
In the past several decades, a dramatic growth in the number of U.S. think tanks occurred, going from approximately 50 in 1970 to well over 300 by 2005. With this growth came a shift toward a “new guard”: think tanks more directly focused on affecting policy and more partisan in nature. Although this growth occurred among all types of think tanks, the most dramatic increase was among conservative think tanks. Scholars attribute this growth to the expansion of business in politics, the rise of neoconservatism, a new paradigm of neoclassical economics, and the political mobilization of fundamentalist Christians.
Research on think tanks largely focuses on defining these institutions, their activities, historical growth, relationships to foundations, increased politicization, and role in the policy-making process. A common measurement of the influence of think tanks is tracking their media citations, congressional testimony, visibility, credibility, marketing strategies, and access to policymakers. Other think tank research takes a more global dimension, focusing on the activities of these policy organizations internationally.
- Critchlow, Donald. 1985. The Brookings Institution, 1916-1952: Expertise and the Public Interest in a Democratic Society. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
- McGann, James G. and R. Kent Weaver. 2002. Think Tanks and Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Pescheck, Joseph G. 1987. Policy-Planning Organizations: Elite Agendas and America’s Rightward Turn. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Ricci, David M. 1993. The Transformation of American Politics, the New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Rich, Andrew. 2004. Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Smith, James A. 1993. The Idea Brokers, Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite. New York: Free Press.
- Stone, Diane. 1996. Capturing the Political Imagination: Think Tanks and the Policy Process. London: Frank Cass.
- Weiss, Carol. 1991. Organizations for Policy Analysis: Helping Government Think. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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