Every day there are stories in the newspapers that have originated in think tanks, based on surveys or new research reports. The think tank will probably get a mention, but a brief explanation of what and who the think tank actually is would be the exception rather than the rule. (Here’s one of today’s from the Council on Foreign Relations)
Think tanks are an accepted part of our media culture, established ways of putting forward ideas and shaping public debate. But it’s not often that we step back and ask who they are, and who pays for them, and what the agenda might be.
There’s no agreed definition of a think tank. They are unregulated and unaccountable. Anyone can set one up, and the general public never need to know who’s behind it. They usually have neutral sounding names after all, names that don’t mean anything much but that suggest academic impartiality: ResPublica, Compass, Civitas.
So if we follow the money, what do we find? The Political Innovation action group asked 20 leading UK think tanks if they would share their major funders. The results are online at whofundsyou.org, ranking the think tanks according to how transparent they were about the source of their income:
“At their best,” say Who Funds You, “think tanks and public policy campaigns make a valuable contribution to political life, generating new ideas and producing important research. At their worst, they can provide a neutral front while actually working on behalf of vested interests.” That’s certainly been the case on climate change, where American think tanks have led the charge against climate science, generously helped along by the Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil.
Another group that has asked questions of the think tanks is the Bureau of Investigative Journalists. They focused on groups working on finance, who it turns out, are often funded by the financial industry. As an example, they highlighted a Demos report that looked at ‘banker bashing’ from politicians. Among Demos’ funders are 13 financial corporations, including the City of London Corporation. Or the Centre for European Reform. The group has published papers arguing against the financial transaction tax, and is funded by Barclays, Citi, Deutsche Bank AG, JP Morgan and UBS, among others.
There’s nothing wrong with this on the face of it – I donate to charities and research projects that I believe in too. In the unlikely event that I ever have any serious wealth to share, I’d want to do a whole lot more of that. The important things are that the think tanks are transparent, that journalists do their jobs in reporting on them, and that we ask more questions of the things we read in the headlines.