Think tanks (sometimes spelled think-tanks) are nonprofit organizations that conduct research aimed at providing policy advice and analysis to policymakers.
What is a think tank?
In general, there is great diversity in the think tank ecosystem and experts often note that there is no such thing as a prototypical think tank: these organizations differ among one another across a number of important dimensions, such as “in how they are funded, the roles that they play, their attitudes toward ‘neutral expertise’, their recruitment of staff, and their ‘product lines.’” (Rich & Weaver 2012) Moreover, the boundaries between think tanks and other types of entities with a mandate to supply policy advice, such as pressure groups, private foundations, academic institutes, policy schools, government agencies, and non-government organizations are sometimes blurry.
A stylized distinction may be drawn between “advocacy” and “research” think tanks, depending on whether the primary goal is to provide “ammunition” or “enlightenment” (Rich & Weaver 2012), although these are probably best regarded as two limit cases in opposite ends of a continuum. Advocacy think tanks (sometimes called “ideological tanks” or “think and do tanks”) often self-identify with a specific political ideology and offer their services to clients in a relatively well-defined range of the political spectrum. Examples include the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (conservative), the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute (liberal), and Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation (libertarian).
By contrast, research think tanks (sometimes called “ink tanks”) are not antecedently committed—at least not explicitly—to policy proposals with a particular ideological bent and are mostly focused on generating novel policy insights. A subset of these think tanks resemble academic institutions in many respects, and are as such sometimes referred to as “universities without students”: organizations such as the Brookings Institution, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to name some examples, are mostly staffed by researchers holding doctoral degrees and publish their research in scholarly books or monographs, although these think tanks are usually (but not always) organizationally independent of academia and have a much closer contact with policy activists and heavier emphasis on practical applicability. Other research think tanks, by contrast, operate in a manner more similar to consultancies: most work by the RAND Corporation, for instance, is focused on program evaluations requested and funded by government agencies.
The impact of think tanks on policy
Think tanks do not only differ greatly in their structure; there is also great diversity in the type and extent of their impact. Andrew Rich and Kent Weaver summarize (Rich & Weaver 2012: 364):
First, [think tanks] can provide basic research on policy problems and policy solutions—for example, outlining the causes and consequences of skills deficits or slow economic growth. Second, think tanks can provide advice on immediate policy concerns through many points of entry into the US policy-making process. These include testifying before congressional committees, writing opinion pieces for newspapers and new media outlets, and writing policy briefs that are increasingly distributed in both print and Web-based formats. Informal consultations and dialogues are another vehicle for advice in immediate policy debates. Third, think tanks can act as evaluators of government programs, usually on a contractual basis. Fourth, think tank staff can be called upon to provide commentary on current events, both for the national and regional press and through new media outlets such as Web commentaries and blog posts. Finally, think tanks can supply personnel for government, given the relatively porous nature of the personnel system and in particular the substantial turnover of high-level, policy-making personnel that takes place at the beginning of presidential and gubernatorial terms.
Open Philanthropy has given grants to a number of think tanks working in a variety of areas, including the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (artificial intelligence), the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (biosecurity and pandemic preparedness), Dezernat Zukunft (macroeconomic policy), the Center for Global Development (immigration reform), the Good Food Institute (animal product alternatives), Nuclear Threat Initiative (biosecurity and global catastrophic biological risks), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (macroeconomic policy), and the Sightline Institute (land use reform).
In the United Kingdom, a think tank often cited as having had a major—though not necessarily positive—impact is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), described by an author as “arguably [the] most influential think tank in British history” (Plehwe 2011: 173) and frequently discussed as having played a significant role in the rise of “neoliberal” ideas in the 1970s and 1980s (Vaughan 2016). Some have even claimed that IEA was causally responsible for key geopolitical developments beyond British borders: Sir Oliver Letwin, a conservative MP, once wrote: “without the IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no Reagan; without Reagan, no Star Wars; without Star Wars, no economic collapse of the Soviet Union.” (Letwin 1994)
A comprehensive report focused on American think tanks by a pseudonymous group of authors with familiarity and personal experience in the Washington D.C. think tank ecosystem summarizes: “Whereas the potential for impact is widely accepted, the average level of think tank impact is far more uncertain.” (Locke_USA 2021)
Think tanks and career choice
The report cited in the previous section considers working at a think tank to be usually more valuable for its career capital—in particular, for growing one’s professional network, improving one’s understanding of the policy world, gaining policy-relevant skills, and becoming a recognized domain expert—than for its direct impact (Locke_USA 2021). The report also notes that the types of career capital think tanks help build vary considerably across different think tanks and roles within them.
Note that, generally, think tank work is considered to be a stage in a broader career in policy rather than a career in itself: “Almost nobody has a ‘think tank career’—instead, see a think tank job as one possible part of a ‘policy career’.” (Locke_USA 2021)
Letwin, Oliver (1994) ‘Wising up the stupid party’, The Times, May 26, p. 40.
Locke_USA (2021) Working at a (DC) policy think tank: Why you might want to do it, what it’s like, and how to get a job, Effective Altruism Forum, August 31.
A comprehensive overview of the Washington DC think tank ecosystem. Appendix A lists a number of relevant books, articles, podcasts and websites.
Open Philanthropy (2014) Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — Full Employment Project (2014), Open Philanthropy, September.
Plehwe, Dieter (2011) Who cares about excellence? Social sciences under think tank pressure, in Tor Halvorsen & Attle Nyhagen (eds.) Academic Identities, Academic Challenges? American and European Experiences of the Transformation of Higher Education and Research, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 159–193.
Rich, Andrew & R. Kent Weaver (2012) Think tanks, in David Coates (ed.) The Oxford Companion to American Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 363–369.
Stone, Diane (2015) Think tanks, in James D. Wright (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd ed., Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 294–299.
Troy, Tevi (2012) Devaluing the think tank, National Affairs, vol. 10.
Vaughan, Kerry (2016) What the EA community can learn from the rise of the neoliberals, Effective Altruism, December 5.
Weaver, R. Kent (1989) The changing world of think tanks, PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 22, pp. 563–578.
Wiblin, Robert (2015) Think tank research, 80,000 Hours, July.