“So what do you do?” That conversation starter, annoyingly ubiquitous in the Washington Beltway, is a conversation killer at family dinners back home. The problem is that we are professional policy experts and, worse than that, experts who work in think tanks. This means that we wear fancy suits and speak to the national media on complex, serious topics like European security and nuclear weapons. Like other experts, we have rows of academic credentials on our walls and networks of high-level contacts in Washington and beyond.
But no one at our family dinners really believes any of this gives us special insight. Our relatives have their own ideas about what is happening in the world and what the United States ought to do about it. They don’t see why the letters after our names or our think tank perches should qualify us to make better policy choices. Other highly educated professionals don’t have this problem. Third cousins don’t usually look an M.D. in the eye and say, “Interesting point, but I have my own views on how to perform heart surgery.”
In short, our families love us, but they hate our jobs. The worst part is that we see their point. After all, if think tank experts have such great insight into policy, why are the outcomes so terrible so much of the time? Even if it has escaped notice in Washington, most everyone around the family dinner table knows intuitively that the think tank industrial complex is failing to deliver for the country. A recent poll by the U.K.-based firm Cast From Clay concluded that only 20 percent of Americans trust think tanks, and our families, we can attest, are not among them.
If we have lost even our close relatives, it is time we confront the truth that think tanks have a serious, and perhaps also a deserved, reputation problem.
Why is this the case? People don’t dislike public sector workers. They appreciate first responders—fire, emergency medical services, and, if sometimes grudgingly, police. They have great respect for the uniformed military. The vast faceless bureaucracy of the federal civilian workforce may cause frustration, but when it shuts down, people miss it. Americans appreciate the folks who send the Social Security checks, who keep the national parks running, and who keep razor blades out of milk cartons. Even when people complain about the Postal Service or the IRS, you don’t hear them saying they’d rather deliver their own letters or go around to their neighbors with a tin cup. In other words, most parts of the government perform functions that ordinary people understand are needed, even if they don’t love them.
Compared with those noble professions, an elite, government-adjacent think tank gig that makes for self-important Beltway cocktail conversations gets little more than an indulgent shrug in the rest of the United States. As one colleague put it, think tankers only get respect from frequent flyer programs and each other. (And thanks to COVID-19, the airlines don’t respect us much now either.) Outside of that limited milieu, policy experts are seen as part of a big, wasteful Washington establishment that might even be doing more harm than good. For many Americans, the only apparent purpose of think tanks is to provide the cudgels that politicians use to whack each other in endless, wasteful partisan battles.
In the last century, think tanks were conceived as a mechanism to bring scientific principles and rigor to the making of policy. Like universities, they would over time accumulate knowledge and serve as centers of expertise and incubators of potentially revolutionary ideas. In their diversity, they would challenge each other and create a competitive, even adversarial, but still fact-based deliberative process for developing policy ideas, through which truth—or at least best practice—would eventually emerge. And they would act like intellectual venture capitalists, investing in people who might eventually emerge to take on important government positions.
All of these functions continue to varying degrees. But as our families seem to sense, none really describes the dominant reality of think tanks today. In point of fact, the think tank business model has evolved in troubling directions. As the industry has expanded, as society around it has become more polarized, and as the competition for funding has grown ever fiercer, some think tanks have become advocacy groups, or even lobbyists, by another name. Political parties want loyal propagandists, not niggling, equivocating academic hangers-on. And potential donors want veteran sharpshooters to fire their policy bullets into exactly the right target at precisely the right moment.
As a series of New York Times investigations in 2014-2017 revealed, the think tank business model has drifted disturbingly toward selling access and influence. For some, the point is no longer to generate new ideas or inform a deliberative process but rather to sell ideas that promote the interests of funders. It’s a straightforward transaction and hardly a new one. The Washington lobbying business has exploded over the past three decades, as the private sector, wealthy individuals, and even foreign governments turn to Washington’s revolving-door power brokers to help them purchase influence on issues that matter to them. Funders are essential for think tanks’ survival and success, but they could just as easily take their money elsewhere, so think tanks are under real pressure to give them what they want. Some funders have even cut out the middleman, so to speak, and created their own purpose-built think tanks.
If the funding chase is the why of the problem, Washington’s deeply tribal partisan political culture, and the echo chamber around it, is the how. In the jungle of proliferating new media, social media, and outright disinformation, think tankers battle one another to control the message. A lonely voice in the wilderness will be drowned out, so policy experts band together in teams, like political parties. Some groups, like the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left, have even explicitly created lobbying arms to carry out the advocacy work their public charity arms would be barred from doing. This legal fiction makes for an inherently porous boundary between what purports to be nonpartisan research in the public interest and lobbying advocacy that is, for legal purposes, no different from K Street.
There are in fact countless honorable and praiseworthy exceptions to these dismaying trends and much fine work being done in policy shops in Washington and beyond. But when some institutions engage in influence peddling and advocacy all the time, and nearly all institutions do it some of the time, it makes it impossible for the ordinary citizen to separate out honest from dishonest think tanks. As a consequence, the policy community becomes one big swamp in which the influence-peddlers’ schmutz dirties even the most erudite and independent policy intellectual. And that’s why think tanks have an image problem. Because Washington has a lobbying and a partisanship problem. We have to do better.
Policymakers and academics attend a panel on Turkish-Armenian relations during an event hosted by the SETA Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 9, 2019. Esra Hacioglu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Dan Coats, then-U.S. director of national intelligence, delivers remarks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Oct. 13, 2017. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A recent report by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on the state of the think tank industry reached similar conclusions. The report sensibly advocated an array of measures to mitigate apparent conflicts of interest and increase transparency at think tanks. In the long term, the report claimed, the benefits of more transparency about funding will outweigh any short-term reputational harm. In the case of foreign funding, it advised think tanks to register as “foreign agents” as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). It also said think tanks could do much more to anticipate apparent conflicts of interest related to funding, projects, or individuals and disclose them to help dispel any whiff of impropriety.
These are all good ideas that will help to some degree, but think tanks’ problems with partisanship and influence peddling run deep. Another key dimension is simply the proliferation of more and bigger think tanks and related organizations in recent decades. The more there are, the more they compete for donor dollars, which in turn shifts the balance of power from experts working at think tanks to donors who might potentially pay their keep. As political polarization increases, donors demand proofs of fealty to their side of the partisan divide. To survive, let alone to compete and prosper, think tanks are under real pressure to put partisan and donor interests first. No amount of transparency will deal with this fundamentally fiscal problem.
Basic economics suggests that if one side of the donor-expert relationship has all the power, supply and demand are out of whack. If there were fewer think tanks, donors might be less able to force their partisan or special interest views on experts.
There is no single, obvious solution, but it is time for think tanks to take the reputation and credibility of the industry as a whole more seriously. One way to do that would be for think tanks to collectively endow a free-standing ratings agency, akin to Standard and Poor’s or Moody’s in the financial industry. This would be distinct from rankings like the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index, which is more akin to the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities.
The point is not to rank think tanks relative to one another but to provide a good housekeeping seal of approval that would assess their capacity and willingness to follow good research practice and to provide truly independent policy recommendations. A condition of receiving ratings, at least for U.S.-based institutions, should be strict disclosure requirements, FARA registration when legally appropriate, and audited compliance with other best practices for tax-exempt public charities. Just as investors are discouraged from investing in low-rated bonds, potential think tank donors would find the ratings to be a useful shorthand for steering clear of funding organizations that don’t embrace best practices.
Even with such a system, the government would have to apply stricter rules to protect the public interest against undue influence from think tank advocacy activities just as it is obligated to do with registered lobbyists. As an incoming new administration mines ideologically aligned think tanks for potential political appointees, for example, it should submit those hires to the same level of scrutiny, ethics requirements, and disclosures as it would registered lobbyists hired from K Street. If think tankers have taken funding from a corporation or foreign government, they should not be put in a position in government to influence policy related to that funder.
Finally, both the U.S. government and think tanks themselves need to seriously reconsider what is appropriate when it comes to foreign funding. FARA registration is ultimately only a disclosure requirement. The harder question is why and whether foreign governments and corporations should be allowed to pay influential Americans, some of whom will someday hold high government offices, to promote their viewpoints in front of once and future colleagues. No other modern democracy offers such an efficient mechanism for foreigners to influence policy decisions.
Of course, foreign funding runs the gamut from friendly, allied governments making fully transparent grants to odious, nondemocratic, and even outright hostile regimes channeling money into Washington via private sector cutouts. These differences matter, and a bright line rule between good and bad foreign funding may be devilishly hard to police. But Congress should at least consider barring tax-exempt U.S. institutions from accepting foreign funding for any work aimed at influencing U.S. foreign policy. Where foreign money is deemed by recipients to be “good,” or at least harmless, the institutions that choose to accept that money should also be willing to submit to mandatory disclosure requirements and firewalls between foreign-funded work and policy advocacy.
Do any of these ideas have a chance of being embraced by think tanks or policymakers? Perhaps. Some at least will favor reforms like these because they will see opportunity in a rating and regulatory system that reinforces the controls they already have in place through board oversight and regular audits. A rating system will help these virtuous think tanks prove their bona fides to funders, the government, and the broader public. Others will balk at the notion and might either survive by migrating to the gray space in between for-profit lobbying and tax-exempt research or run afoul of the new rules and suffer reputational consequences, even potentially going bust. Market forces and individual preferences will decide.
Regardless, our relatives will understand better what think tanks are about, and we might start to get a little more respect when the dinner conversation turns to policy. Our families might never learn to love our jobs, but at least they won’t be the conversation killers they are now.