Think tanks are a quintessential American institution. When a committee on Capitol Hill holds a hearing, think tank scholars often provide expert testimony. These scholars occupy a territory between policy makers and academics and often move freely between those professions.
“It’s a long tradition in America to put our trust in outside experts,” said Jim McGann, senior lecturer and director of Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. “So the most important policy issues facing the country were entrusted not to civil servants, not to government officials, but to think tanks. If you look for example at the 9/11 commission, virtually everyone had an affiliation with a think tank.”
Many think tanks take pride in their reputation as independent research organizations, whose scholars do rigorous, unbiased work. But that is now in question. A recent New York Times article pointed out the potential for foreign influence-buying at policy shops such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development. The Times charged that think tanks are taking tens of millions of dollars from foreign donors while advocating their positions with the U.S. government.
“The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington,” The Times wrote.
Those donors range from Norway to Japan to Canada. But in what was a bombshell for many Israel supporters, The Times revealed that former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Martin Indyk accepted $14.8 million from Qatar for the Brookings Institution, where he now is director of the Foreign Policy Program. Qatari money has aided Hamas, against which Israel fought a war this summer and which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.
Critics hit Indyk both for his revolving door role in both Brookings and the U.S. peace team, and for accepting money from an enemy of Israel and supporter of terrorism.
As the controversy over the Times article peaked last week, the House of Representatives began to consider a proposed rule that would require think-tank scholars who testify on Capitol Hill to disclose any support they receive from foreign governments. The proposal received bipartisan support.
What happens at Brookings, which has a center in Doha, Qatar, sets an example for other think tanks. Brookings (its motto is: “Quality. Independence. Impact”) was named the most influential think tank in the world by Global Go To Think Tank Index, an annual survey of the global influence of think tanks. It is compiled by McGann.
According to the Times, “12 percent of the annual budget at the Brookings Institution, and as much as 20 percent of the funding at the Atlantic Council comes from foreign governments.”
Many other think tanks receive corporate funding. One is the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which lists as donors Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Nestle and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others. Peterson was rated two stars (out of five) for transparency by Transparify, an international initiative advocating greater think-tank transparency.
The Peterson Institute is to economic and trade expertise what Brookings is to foreign policy.
Writing in Inside Philanthropy, editor David Callahan asked, “Just how much intellectual integrity can the institute have, considering its dependence on donors with a strong financial stake in the issues that it works on?”
Callahan went on to describe the chilling effect corporate donors might have on the institute’s work.
“The danger here is not that some board member or funder will give the word to a squash a specific policy brief,” he wrote. “Rather, it’s that such a brief will never be written to begin with, thanks to self-censorship. Policy groups are loathe ever to bite the hands that feed them, no matter what they may say about the intellectual independence of their scholars. As for those scholars, they’re well aware of who’s paying their salaries.”
McGann isn’t worried. He said that most of the older, more established think tanks have conflict of interest, peer review and donor guideline procedures already in place.
Nevertheless, he said that there have been incidents where individual think-tank scholars were caught doubling as lobbyists, but it is rare.
The solution to conflict of interest is transparency, according to Hans Gutbrod, executive director of Transparify.
“Transparency communicates confidence in the integrity of your research,” he said. “If you know that your research can withstand critical scrutiny, there is no reason to hide that your donors may have particular preferences. So it is a key component.”
There are a number of other best practices, according to Gutbrod. They include:
“Informing donors and clients early on that they will publish, independent of what the result is.”
“Publishing all associated data, so that results can be replicated externally.”
“Some institutions have a strong code of conduct, which can become a point of reference for researchers that insist on their independence,” he said.
“As the majority of think tanks are 501(c)3 organizations, practically all of them have a written conflict of interest policy. They are being asked to affirm this in their annual IRS 990 tax declaration form, Part VI, Section B 12 a-c, and are asked whether they monitor and enforce that policy ‘regularly and consistently.’ That policy could cover institutional conflicts of interest.”
“Boards need to communicate clearly to the think-tank management that integrity is more important than growth. In some cases, success has been measured in terms of added revenue.”
That approach, Gutbrod admitted, “has its risks.”
McGann said that most of the older, more established think tanks have conflict of interest, peer review and donor-guideline procedures already in place. Nevertheless, he said, there have been incidents where individual think-tank scholars were caught doubling as lobbyists, but it is rare.
Mark Rom, director of the masters in American government program at Georgetown University, said that he has confidence in the independence of think-tank researchers. Yet he admits that unlike in previous decades when think tanks like Brookings usually had a “pot” of funding that would finance all its research equally, he sees a greater push for scholars to fund their own projects.
“More scholars and think tanks have to raise their own funding, and when you’re raising your own funding, there is a least a possibility that you will research things in ways that would please those who fund it,” Rom said.
Though think tanks are registered as 501(c)3s – nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations – some, like the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative Heritage Foundation, have established 501(c)4 offshoots responsible for lobbying in favor of its causes. Rom sees this as a growing trend.
What doesn’t seem to be changing is government reliance on think tanks and what McGann called the “revolving door” between think tanks and government service. In the Indyk case, it can raise questions of propriety. In other situations, it helps government run more effectively.
“During the transition [between the Bush and Obama administrations] and the economic crisis, Obama was able to rely on the staff of think tanks – many of whom came into his administration before he took office,” McGann said.
Because of that, Obama “was able to hit the ground running and respond to the crisis in a way that would not be possible elsewhere and is unusual in terms of the seamless transition from one administration to the other.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
David Holzel is a senior writer and Dmitriy Shapiro the political reporter at Washington Jewish Week.