What are Think Tanks for?

COMMENTARY Conservatism

What are Think Tanks for?

Sep 14th, 2017 4 min read

Commentary By

James Jay Carafano @JJCarafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

Mike Gonzalez @Gundisalvus

Senior Fellow

The American think tank is alive and well. And it still exerts profound influence on national and state policymaking. iStock

Key Takeaways

The New America Foundation has fired a scholar whose work apparently upset one of its largest donors: Google.

Put briefly, think tanks are policy shops.

Think tanks are thus not a mere bridge, but the producers and purveyors of intellectual content intended for the betterment of society.

Controversy is once again roiling the usually placid waters of Washington’s think tank community. The New America Foundation has fired a scholar whose work apparently upset one of its largest donors: Google.

The discussion has followed several different paths. Some hands are wringing over Google’s growing influence; other folks present the story as a cautionary tale that reveals the risks of becoming too dependent on one donor. Certainly one of the most confused takes on the topic appears in a piece written for Politico by university professor and Brookings Institution fellow Daniel W. Drezner.

Drezner cites diversification of the funding base as a great way to inoculate a think tank from undue influence by a donor or small group of donors. But he rules out taking money from large corporations or large individual donors. Perhaps oddest of all, he recommends excluding “small, strident donors” who tend to be “advocates for a cause.” That pretty much restricts the funding pool to foundations and government. So much for diversification.

As for the brouhaha at New America, details are murky. A Google spokesperson told The Intercept that the internet giant never threatened to cut off funding unless New America fired the scholar, Barry Lynn, and disbanded his Open Markets division over their criticism of Google’s monopoly power. But the spokesperson admitted that she would not deny Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s displeasure with Lynn’s work. “But displeasure and pressure are two totally different things,” she said.

We’ll let you parse that statement. But we’ll add that no “small donor,” no matter how “strident,” would be able to force a researcher out.

[For the record: Our think tank, The Heritage Foundation, has received donations from Google for eight years. Several times throughout that period, we have taken policy positions at odds with those espoused by Google. The company has never pressured us to change our stance on any of these issues.]

The Heritage Foundation has hundreds of thousands of donors who make relatively small gifts. They are passionate, which is great. But all they ask is that we provide policy solutions that, in the words of Heritage’s mission statement, “build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish.”

Drezner’s conception of the role of think tanks is, in fact, quite problematic. Yes, we know he’s written a book on the topic. But we’ve looked into it a bit ourselves, and we beg to differ with his formulation.

Drezner calls think tanks “bridge builders between the academy and government.” Given his dual-hatted role, it’s understandable that he might think that’s what the elephant looks like. But there’s more to think-tanking than that.

Put briefly, think tanks are policy shops. We spend our days researching and writing. The basis for this work involves conducting primary research and data analysis, reading reports and research produced by other experts or the government to inform our work, and analyzing proposed legislation and current policy.

This is an exercise in truth discovery. But, however rewarding in itself, it is not conducted simply to add to society’s body of knowledge; ideally, it also functions as a prelude to policy formulation for all branches of government at the state and federal levels. We craft policy in a way that advances foundational principles, be they Left or Right. That means we have philosophical and theoretical frameworks through which we consider the application of policy.

Think tanks are thus not a mere bridge, but the producers and purveyors of intellectual content intended for the betterment of society.

Drezner writes that think-tanking is futile at the moment because “the White House isn’t interested in what [think tanks] have to say.” One senses real frustration here. But while the Trump White House may not be as interested as the Obama administration was in hearing from left-leaning think tanks, it has been far more open to research and recommendations from conservative ones.

Not just conservative ones. Drezner takes a shot at the administration by claiming “there isn’t a first-rate policy intellectual anywhere to be found in Trump’s White House.” That must come as news to Fiona Hill, his former colleague at Brookings who is now on the National Security Council staff as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs.

One doesn’t need to look far to recognize the intelligent policy work that’s being done by dozens of other former think-tankers now helping the administration deal with a slew of problems — whether budgetary, economic, or relating to national security — left by the previous administration.

The American think tank is alive and well. And it still exerts profound influence on national and state policymaking.

The degree of influence a given think tank has will fluctuate over time. A change in who controls the levers of government or what topics are front and center in the public debate can leave a given think tank out of favor or seemingly irrelevant for a period of time. Those circumstances are beyond a think tank’s control. All one can do is keep working and wait for circumstances to change again.

What is entirely within a think tank’s control is diversifying the funding base, which allows a think tank to weather the seasons when it is out of favor, and make the most of the opportunities presented when it is in favor. Even more importantly, a diversified funding base gives a think tank the ability to be truly independent of special interests, assuring the integrity of its research and policy recommendations.

This Piece originally appeared in Real Clear Policy