Think Tanks Aren't Going Extinct. But They Have to Evolve.

October 21, 2015 Topic: Society Tags: Think TanksResearchScholarship

Think Tanks Aren't Going Extinct. But They Have to Evolve.

The age of the "virtual think tank" isn't on the horizon.


“The Think Tank is Dead.” So predicted Michael Tanji a half-decade ago.

Tanji argued that “virtual think tanks,” groups of experts tethered only by common interests and cyber-communications, offered advantages (as well as some disadvantages) over traditional think tanks moored in brick-and-mortar buildings. The next iteration of think tanks—dubbed, inevitably, Think Tank 2.0—would be a mash-up of both cyber and cubicled assemblies of brains.


That, at least, was Tanji’s vision of the future. Yet his virtual tank, the Center for Threat Awareness, stopped publishing less than a year later. As for the brick-and-mortar dinosaurs, they’re still going strong.

That’s not to say that traditional think tanks won’t change. They will. Increasingly, these institutes of research and education will develop sister organizations to apply the legislative expertise and political pressure needed to transform their policy recommendations into enacted law.

Put plainly, the future is bright for brick-and-mortar think tanks—particularly those working on foreign and national security policy. When done right, the independent, nonpartisan think tank can have a strong competitive advantage in the war of ideas.


Origins of the American Think Tank

The American think tank was born a social creature, a gathering of bodies as well as minds, where thinkers could converse face-to-face, exchanging information, offering ideas and advancing theories. The young republic, much like Europe, boasted “salons” of independent thinkers who gathered to ponder the big problems of the day.

In the late 1840s, West Point professor Dennis Hart Mahan chaired the Napoleon Club, an informal gathering of military officers and advanced students who studied and debated the art of war. In 1872, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce organized the Metaphysical Club, whose deliberations produced the foundation of American pragmatism.

In Europe, salons tended to remain personality-based, and therefore rather ephemeral. But Americans had a more robust appreciation for the place of private philanthropy for the public space and desire to build institutions. Thus, salons were succeeded by a uniquely American creature: the independent, privately financed scholarly institution, operating outside of traditional academia and divorced from government or corporate sponsorship.

The modern think tank did not spring, Athena-like, fully grown from the head of the salon. Arising in a variety of ways, its role, function, scope and size have evolved over time, producing many variations on the theme.

The think tank proper can trace its roots to 1910, when Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The retired industrialist gave his trustees “the widest discretion as to the measures and policy” to deal with global challenges, including the funding of independent research.

Six years later, the Brookings Institution was established with a mission of “addressing the questions of the federal government.”

At the end of World War I, a working group of over 150 scholars organized “the Inquiry,” an effort to help the White House prepare for the postwar peace conference. This effort evolved into the Council on Foreign Relations.

The term “think tank” wasn’t popularized until the late 1950s, when it was often associated with RAND, an independent, non-profit corporation established in 1948. But RAND was just one of more than two dozen federally funded research and development centers, part of the explosive growth of government-funded research during the Cold War.

In the last quarter of the Cold War, privately funded think tanks began to give government research some serious competition. This wave of new or expanded institutions appeared to crest with the economic downturn of 2007.

Hard times weren’t the only challenge to the rise of the think tanks. Well before 2007, the information revolution had significantly lowered the cost bar for proliferating ideas. This led to the speculation that the days of the brick-and-mortar think tank might be numbered. Maintaining physical infrastructure and paying for people is not cheap. On the other hand, thinking and posting on the Internet can be done for next to free. Further, truly “independent” scholars, unencumbered by managers, grant-providers, fundraisers and other distractions, could spin out out-of-the-box ideas faster than traditional think tanks. At least, that was the notion expressed by Tanji and others.

And arguments that think tanks are balancing on the edge aren’t going way. The Washington Post’s “In Theory” website recently posted a piece asking again if think tanks were obsolete. The commentary raised a plethora of issues from ideological bias to donor-meddling to the rotating door that shuttles people in and out of government jobs.

Yet, the think tank community centered in Washington, DC has proved remarkably resilient. And for very strong reasons.

It is true that anyone can post anything on the Internet. Some can even garner thousands of likes and hundreds of tweets building a vast social network. But none of these activities necessarily generates better ideas or transforms ideas into action.

Social networks are most powerful when they are connected to the human web: flesh-and-blood communities bound not just by a common interest, but by a shared committed to act. Think tanks provide a space for a human community of thinkers: a distinct advantage that is hard to overcome.


What Next?

Where does the idea industry go from here? The real topic worth pondering is: What will make for the most influential think tank—one that can produce constructive, transformative ideas to create a better future for all?

Research and ideas are the core competency of think tanks; it’s what the ideas industry brings to public policy debates. But it’s the way they think that matters, bridging the distinct stereotypical frameworks from which academics and practitioners approach problem solving, and covering the gap between theory and practice, ideas and action. Think tank leaders ought to assemble a healthy mix of operational experience and academic training and expertise.

The capacity to do rigorous, credible research is, of course, necessary for a think tanker. But it is not sufficient. Think tank talent must possess qualities not captured on a résumé. Character, for example, is essential. Like the leaders and decision-makers they seek to advise, analysts must be rigorously ethical, doing the right things for the right reasons.

In addition to competence and character, competitive analysts have the ability to help maneuver their ideas prominently into the policy debate. They don’t have be masters at speechmaking, media or marketing, testifying on the Hill or tweeting, posting and texting, but they must at least have the skill to work with those who are. The old days of writing a research paper and hoping the right person reads it are long gone. Today, analysts have to be good at communicating in multiple media, and in ways that will allow their ideas to break through to decision makers who are bombarded with information from all sides.

Another key competitive advantage is creating a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment where analysts can easily work together with other scholars and experts outside of their immediate department. Hugely complex issues, like immigration and border security, demand expertise from a large number of disciplines. Effective cross-departmental teams can give think tanks an enormous competitive advantage, as well as flexible, adaptive research efforts that can jump on rapidly breaking issues, like the sudden prospect of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. or the appropriate response to an earthquake, tsunami or nuclear meltdown.

All that said, turning good human capital into a competitive advantage requires not just attracting talent but holding on to it. After all, complex, intractable public policy challenges require sustained attention. In foreign policy even sudden, dramatic changes—like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the race to Baghdad or the Arab Spring—have long, drawn-out and sometimes bloody aftermaths. Think tanks looking to keep really talented and effective analysts for the duration of these challenges must give them a reason to stay. Otherwise, they’ll drift off to higher-paying jobs in industry, powerhouse positions in government or prestigious academic appointments.

Yes, keeping talented analysts has something to do with pay. But quality of life and work are even bigger considerations for most. When analysts are given the chance to focus on the issues that feed their intellect, interests and passions—and a supportive environment for conducting their research—they have two very powerful reasons to stay.

Dealing with the demands and distractions of fundraising also matters. In America, when you’ve seen one think tank, well, you’ve seen one think tank. The institutions’ governance, mission, and finances are as varied as the galaxy of think tanks that revolve around Washington.

The best business model is one where (1) analysts are walled off from fundraising, letting them focus on their core mission, (2) researchers can count on sustained support, year in and year out, regardless of how hot their issue may be at any particular moment or how in demand or unpopular their findings may be, and (3) the think tank taps a large number of private funding sources, eschewing government support entirely and having only minimal reliance on corporate giving and grant-making institutions. A large, diverse donor base creates an environment that allows research to proceed independent of the personal agendas of a few “fat cat” donors. Eschewing government funds negates the threat of political influence, while limiting corporate or foundation giving reduces the possibility that special-interest pleadings will affect research or policy recommendations.