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Think tanks are nonprofit, research-oriented institutes whose primary objective is to influence public opinion and public policy. Think tanks have the objective of providing research and innovative policy solutions to legislators, the judiciary, and the public. Some scholars suggest that think tanks exist merely for the type of large-scale lobbying that aims to create a climate of opinion favorable to particular private interests. The term think tank was first used in the United States during World War II to refer to a secure room where defense scientists and army planners could meet to discuss war strategy, but the meaning has expanded to include any advice-giving institution, including public relations and marketing organizations.
Scholars who have studied the growth and development of American think tanks agree that the highly decentralized nature of the American political system, the lack of strict party discipline, and the large infusion of funds from philanthropic foundations have contributed to the expansion of think tanks in the United States. The first generation of think tanks includes the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1910), the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace (1919), and the Council on Foreign Relations (1921).
The second generation includes the Institute for Government Research (1916), renamed after a merger with other institutes into the Brookings Institution (1927), and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (1943), a highly respected conservative think tank. This group was the first to focus on a foreign policy issues. After World War II, the RAND Corporation was created (1948) to promote and protect U.S. security interests during the nuclear age.
The third generation of think tanks were the “advocacy think tanks” such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (1962), the Heritage Foundation (1973), and the CATO Institute (1977) that appeared in the 1970s. These think tanks combine policy research with marketing techniques.
Think tanks of the fourth and most recent generation, the Carter Center in Atlanta and the Washington, D.C.-based Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, were created by former presidents with the objective of leaving a lasting legacy on foreign and domestic policy. Scholars note that the influence of think tanks has shifted to the right since the 1970s. Of the 10 think tanks most often cited in the media, six are conservative or right-leaning, three are centrist, and one is left-leaning. More than half of all media citations of think tanks referred to conservative or right-leaning institutions, such as the Heritage Foundation, which states that its objective is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” Only 13 percent of media citations referred to progressive or left-leaning institutions.
Strategies employed by think-tanks to transmit their views to policymakers and the public include organizing public conferences, seminars, and public lectures; testifying before legislative committees; writing opinion pieces in the print media and giving expert comment on electronic media; and creating content on the internet.
Today, there are over 3,500 think tanks worldwide, half of which are in the United States, where they are distinguished from their counterparts in other countries by their ability to participate directly and indirectly in policymaking. Think tanks in Canada, Australia, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have developed around the idea of promoting independent and objective research on relevant policy issues.
In Europe, think tanks are perceived as independent nonprofit associations, open and accountable providers of analysis and information to assist policymakers in research and evaluation. The European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN) is a network of dynamic think tanks and policy institutes that focus on current European Union (EU) and European political and policy debates. With 25 member think tanks in 21 countries, EPIN includes almost all the EU member states and accession and candidate countries. Think tanks in Brussels use regular conferences and seminars as platforms to network and discuss policy opinions with other EU actors, thus allowing participants from the private sector, media, academia, and civil society to meet EU institutional representatives in a neutral environment.
Transnational think tanks founded by philanthropic foundations, corporations, and international organizations such as the World Bank have become a global phenomenon. A new trend is collaboration between think tanks across continents, such as the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders on West-Islam relations.
The first think tank devoted exclusively to natural resource and environmental issues was Resources for the Future (RFF), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization founded in 1952 to conduct independent research-primarily in economics and other social sciences-on environmental, energy, and natural resource issues. RFF has pioneered the application of economics as a tool to develop more effective policy for the use and conservation of natural resources by analyzing critical issues concerning pollution control, energy policy, land and water use, hazardous waste, climate change, biodiversity and the environmental challenges of developing countries.
Scholars note that conservative, corporate-funded think tanks contribute to confusion about the scientific basis of environmental problems such as global warming, species depletion, acid rain, and ozone depletion. Conservative think tanks oppose environmental regulations and promote free-market remedies for those problems. On the other hand, liberal think tanks have promoted the work of environmental economists, and many of the leading scholars in this area are associated with think tanks, including Robert Hahn, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute; Terry Anderson, who has written for several think tanks in Australia and the United States; Robert Stavins and Bradley Whitehead, authors of a Progressive Policy Institute study; Alan Moran from the Tasman Institute, an Australian think tank; and Walter Block from the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank.
- Donald E. Abelson, Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002);
- Sharon Beder, “Examining the Role of Think Tanks,” Engineers Australia (November, 1999);
- Elizabeth T. Boris and C. Eugene Steuerle, eds., Non-profits and Government: Collaboration and Conflict (Urban Institute Press, 1998);
- Diane Stone and Andrew Denham, eds., Think Tank Traditions: Policy Research and the Politics of Ideas (Manchester University Press, 2004).