What to expect from our think tanks
If all exposure is good for business, then the think tank industry is booming. Our fellows—for I head one—appear on op-ed pages, in news stories and in the airwaves regularly, nourishing the 24-hour globalized news cycle and in turn being nourished by it. While media visibility is the most evident face of think tanks in the public imagination, there is a lot more to them.
The C. D. Howe Institute’s work on the distributional impacts of income splitting was at the core of an unusually public rift within cabinet in 2014. The Centre for International Governance Innovation, the think tank I run, is credited with having seeded and developed the concept of moving from the traditional G7 leaders’ grouping to the more inclusive G20. Through their work and skilful amplification channels in the 1970s, a family of conservative think tanks based in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada are said to have created the broad climate that persists to this day, in which government is routinely seen only in minimalist terms, as a problem for and not the solution to societal advance. Think tanks everywhere bridge the space between basic and applied research done mostly in universities and governments, other decision makers such as the private sector, and the public at large. They exercise influence by helping to shape policy and public opinion in subtle and less subtle ways.
The decline in so-called legacy media has also presented a perverse opportunity for think tanks, allowing them to move into the long-form journalism and foreign news analysis space. This, plus the ubiquity of digital technologies, now affords think tanks an unparalleled opportunity to use fresh conduits to get their message out unmediated. For example, the New America Foundation’s platform on drone warfare is the single most comprehensive source of information and analysis about a new and underreported phenomenon that is transforming warfare.
Although the world’s first think tank was British—the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, established in 1831—the concept is more properly seen to be primarily an American one. Despite the long lineage, it is also a recent one, fuelled by the growth of popular media and its desire for punditry, and perhaps less appreciated but more important, the embedding of technocratic policy making the world over. Ninety percent of think tanks today were created after 1950, a full one third created during the 1980s alone.
Still, the key elements of RUSI’s creation and development illustrate what a think tank is. RUSI was proposed by the Duke of Wellington under the patronage of His Majesty the King and Commander in Chief of the armed forces to study naval and military matters so that these professions, in the words of one of its founders, “entered the lists of science.” It housed a museum containing military records and artifacts for students of the subject; it was meant to resemble “a strictly scientific and professional society, and not a club.” Some years later, a journal devoted to military matters was also launched. Neither a university nor a government department, RUSI bore the hallmarks of the modern think tank, marshalling evidence to develop policy options and promote them to government and to the public more broadly.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tank and Civil Society Program produces an annual report that, although controversial for the methodology behind its ranking of think tanks, is the authoritative assessment of the contours of the think tank sector globally. Its numbers show that of the world’s approximately 6,600 think tanks, about 2,000 are based in the United States, and 2,100 in Europe. The great growth region is Asia (China and India particularly) where from a negligible base now lie over 700 think tanks. Canada is said to have about 100.
Any book on think tanks, especially Canadian think tanks, has either to capture the attention with better or at least different rankings or to drill deeper into the national context, that is, write compellingly about what is a small segment of a thriving global sector.
Much to the chagrin of one of his professors in graduate school, as we are told in the acknowledgements section of his most recent book on the subject, Don Abelson has spent a career studying the “perplexing” (his word) world of think tanks from his perch in the department of political science at Western University. Most of his work has concentrated on the impact think tanks in the United States have on public opinion and policy, but in Northern Lights: Exploring Canada’s Think Tank Landscape he turns his attention to the Canadian arena.
Abelson is correct—the 100 number in the UPenn reports is almost certainly inflated, containing as it does such organizations as the Canadian Economics Association (a professional body) and several university-based research institutes that no one would accuse of being think tanks. The ratings, too, have contained anomalies, such as ignoring the C.D. Howe Institute entirely until recently, and featuring Canada’s aid agency and development research funder as ranked think tanks. The Fraser Institute has consistently bested the rankings among Canadian think tanks. The section of the book devoted to profiling Canadian think tanks (of which more later) features 25, which even with quibbles about who is included and who not, is closer to mapping the reality.
It appears from this account that many of the challenges and opportunities Canadian think tanks face are common to their U.S.—and indeed, global—cohort. Canada’s think tanks are embedded in the public discourse on all manner of issues, struggle with funding (although on balance American think tanks are better funded than their Canadian counterparts) and seek the ephemeral grail of being deemed “influential” in the public mind.
Change, be it in a policy or in public opinion or the conduct of firms or groups of individuals, is a complex process—everywhere. Attributing change to the work of a single organization is naive, dishonest or both. In their quest for influence and resources, Canadian think tanks walk the same fine line that their counterparts around the world do, seeking to take credit for being part of a success story, collecting reams of imperfect statistics and anecdotes to make the point.
A second area of commonality for think tanks around the world is always guaranteed to generate media attention and public debate: the extent to which think tanks are transparent about their finances and the influence funding has on the recommendations of a think tank’s research. There have been some instances in the United States where exposés in the press have led to an altogether overdue introspection among think tanks about how funding is garnered, how it is reported and the extent to which protocols exist to insulate research from funders. In Canada, in the last year alone, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute was accused of accepting grants from the defence contractor General Dynamics while also defending Canada’s controversial sale of combat vehicles made by one of its subsidiaries to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the principals behind Canada 2020 have been excoriated for intermingling their think tank activities with their lobbying and communications consulting work for clients including the Liberal government.
Think tanks, like most other change-driving organizations, are driven by values, sometimes disparagingly called ideology. I do not find it surprising that “right wing” think tanks generate right-leaning results and “left wing” think tanks generate left-leaning results. I also believe the notion that funding drives biases to be simplistic; rather, the relationship, while complex, is likely the other way around. That is, organizations, be they think tanks or political or social groups, are founded based on certain principles and values, and create the public persona that attracts funding, staff and audience accordingly, thus creating a self-reinforcing cycle. The Fraser Institute has spawned a cottage industry that aims to show that methodological and data biases in the institute’s studies always seem to work in the direction of demonstrating the benefits of free markets and the costs of intervening in their function. It does not follow that the institute’s views can be bought. Think tanks, especially those at the two edges of the political spectrum, are part of an echo chamber of likeminded views, people and funding.
What matters is not bias, for in the public policy space (as in research more broadly) it is pervasive, but transparency. Since 2014, Transparify has published an annual five-point rating of the degree of clarity with which think tanks portray their income. For the four and five star ratings, as Transparify puts it, “outside stakeholders can infer who their main donors are” and “how much each donor contributed.” The remaining three levels of rating signal greater degrees of murk. The good news is that average scores are rising each year, suggesting that the process of Transparifying is making think tank practices on their finances more open.
But the seeming recalcitrants also evoke principle. Some funders are genuinely modest or seek to guard their privacy. Some do not wish to be pestered by other similar organizations who are alerted by a selective act of philanthropy. Some fit the progressive plantation owner mode, keen to effect change in areas (once abolishing slavery, more recently legalizing or decriminalizing drugs) where social ostracizing is a real risk. Think tanks might have business reasons to keep information about income opaque and away from the eyes of competitors, or have a genuine belief that the affairs of a private entity that receives no government funds are its own business and no one else’s.
I wish Northern Lights had covered the question of funding, transparency and principle in more detail in the Canadian context, for the issue extends well past the revelations of the past year or two. The think tank community is itself split on this question; otherwise collegial meetings I have attended with my peers become fraught when it comes to this subject. The think tank brand in the public eye will be shaped by how think tanks deal with this matter. But, for Abelson, the dispassionate observer of the think tank business, does the logic driving the single star trump that behind the five stars?
While metrics are not everything, there is a lack of empirical evidence for the assertions made in the book. For example, Abelson clearly admires the work of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and thinks it wields an outsized impact on social policy issues in Canada. This is my sense too, but one would expect more than a set of hunches in a book-length treatment of think tanks in Canada. The data appendices at the end of the book contain information on the budget, media citations and parliamentary appearances of think tanks. But no attempt is made to collect these into a coherent picture of influence or impact, nor are these connected to specific assertions in the text.
In the age of the website, much of the information in the section devoted to profiles of Canadian think tanks (such as salient publications) is extraneous. The summary of each think tank is neither lifted from official corporate material (and thus at least factually correct) nor deep enough to serve as authoritative outsider accounts of the evolution of the organization. CIGI’s average annual budget is listed as $25 million in this section and $42 million in Table AI.3 (for the record, the former figure is more accurate) and Abelson is convinced the organization is part of a university (it is not).
Careless research aside, the chapter on how think tanks evaluate impact usefully lays out the several dimensions of the subject and its nuances. How does one combine and give appropriate weight to (say) print media citations, radio and TV appearances, testimony in Parliament, private meetings, public lectures and number of publications (and the quality of each of these segments of impact) to arrive at a coherent sense of success? This is as much art as it is science, and much lies in the eyes of the beholder. This is exactly why one should be sceptical about ratings and rankings, and yet diligently collect the underlying data.
In the future, Canadian think tanks will continue to grapple with this and three other issues. First, Abelson correctly notes that the literature on the subject suggests that differences in political systems are not as important as one might think. Specifically, key scholars on the subject hold that the permanent civil service in Canada and other parliamentary systems does not inherently make think tanks less relevant here, compared with its more fluid counterpart in the United States and Latin America. But the near wholesale change at the senior and even middle levels of the bureaucracy after U.S. elections and the revolving door between U.S. administrations and think tanks are noteworthy. When it comes to policy impact, or at least policy entrée, there is no substitute for having a former (and future) colleague in a position of power. Also, the to and fro with government keeps think tanks vital. Compensating for the absence of this, along with budgets that are on average smaller than those of U.S. think tanks, puts greater onus on think tanks in Canada to engage with the policy process and the public effectively.
Second, does the globalization of funding matter? As ever, not only do the U.S. foundations fund research and think tanks in other countries, but many, such as the Ford, Rockefeller and Gates foundations justly take credit for having created enduring research enclaves around the world, particularly in developing countries. Canada’s counterpart to these funders, the International Development Research Centre, also belongs to this honourable tradition.
U.S. think tanks have recently gone a step further, establishing eponymous beachheads in the Middle East and Asia. But when the New York Times revealed in 2014 that the Centre for Global Development had received Norwegian funding to influence U.S. aid policy on deforestation in Indonesia, it was the foreign money, not the broader issue of money driving research conclusions, that gave the story octane. Some years ago when it was revealed that the Koch brothers had given money to the Fraser Institute, the institute’s response was that it was used not for its Canadian policy work but its international work. It is not clear why foreign funding is acceptable in some cases or in some countries but not in others. It is especially disconcerting to see the press and think tanks, who mostly stand for open exchange and even globalization, fudge the core issue, which should be about transparency not nationalism.
Finally, and related, especially in a small open economy like Canada’s, the distinction between domestic and international is blurred. Even with globalism under siege as it currently is, the transnational effects of policies and trends have not gone away. Reactions to globalism are changing, and cooperative solutions, especially multilateral ones, are in the current climate not instinctively sought. Think tanks in Canada as elsewhere must be agile to internalize this phenomenon and help calibrate responses to it. Where does domestic energy policy end and foreign relations begin?
Northern Lights touches more lightly than I might have expected on many of these aspects of the think tank world and comes up inconclusive on the key issues. It falls between the cracks, being neither a rigorous scholarly assessment of Canada’s think tanks nor an engaging account from a think tank insider. It raises many questions, provides few indicators of the answers and thus leaves Canada’s think tanks as perplexing as ever.