Think Tanks.

A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors; in the words of Yellow Times.org [Yellow Times.org, We Were Censored] columnist John Chuckman, "phony institutes where ideologue~propagandists pose as academics ... into which money gushes like blood from opened arteries to support meaningless advertising's suffocation of genuine debate".

Of course, some think tanks are more legitimate than that. Private funding does not necessarily make a researcher a shill, and some think-tanks produce worthwhile public policy research. In general, however, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders.

"We've got think tanks the way other towns have firehouses," Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach says. "This is a thoughtful town. A friend of  mine worked at a think tank temporarily and the director told him when he entered, 'We are white men between the ages of 50 and 55, and we have no place else to go.'"

"In 1970, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s." --George Lakoff

Think tanks are funded primarily by large businesses and major foundations. They devise and promote policies that shape the lives of everyday Americans: Social Security privatization, tax and investment laws, regulation of everything from oil to the Internet. They supply experts to testify on Capitol Hill, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers, and appear as TV commentators. They advise presidential aspirants and lead orientation seminars to train incoming members of Congress.

Think tanks have a decided political leaning. There are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money. This is no accident, as one of the important functions of think tanks is to provide a backdoor way for wealthy business interests to promote their ideas or to support economic and sociological research not taking place elsewhere that they feel may turn out in their favor. Conservative think tanks also offer donors an opportunity to support conservative policies outside academia, which during the 1960s and 1970s was accused of having a strong "collectivist" bias.

"Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor's checkbook and are seldom publicized," notes Tom Brazaitis, writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet. Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds." So much money now flows in, that the top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the "soft money" contributions to the Republican party.

In the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 Democratic-inclined supporters sought to bolster funding for centre-left think tanks. "Scores of the US's richest people have pledged $1 million or more towards a new attempt to reinvigorate the American left and counter the powerful Republican political machine," writes David Teather in The GUardian (UK). "The money will be funnelled through an organisation called the Democracy Alliance which, according to a report in the Washington Post, will help fund a network of thinktanks and advocacy groups seeking to halt the shift to the cultural and political right." Democratic strategist Rob Stein, who organized the effort, thinks "there is a big imbalance in the amount of cash that goes into left and rightwing thinktanks. Over the past two years, he said, think tanks pushing the conservative agenda had received $295 million, while leftwing institutions were given just $75 million."

A think tank's resident experts carry titles such as "senior fellow" or "adjunct scholar," but this does not necessarily mean that they even possess an academic degree in their area of claimed expertise. Outside funding can corrupt the integrity of academic institutions. The same corrupting influences affect think tanks, only more so.

Think tanks are like universities minus the students and minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought. Real academics are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is often reversed at most policy-driven think tanks. As writer Jonathan Rowe has observed, the term "think" tanks is a misnomer. His comment was directed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, but it applies equally well to many other think tanks, regardless of ideology: "They don't think; they justify."

A Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) is a special category of think tank. As described by the National Science Foundation,

FFRDCs are "R&D-performing organizations that are exclusively or substantially financed by the Federal Government and are supported by the Federal Government either to meet a particular R&D objective or, in some instances, to provide major facilities at universities for research and associated training purposes. Each center is administered either by an industrial firm, a university, or another nonprofit institution."

The Department of Defense (DOD) sponsors ten FFRDCs, with other North American think tanks. Many of these DOD FFRDCs, and the institutions that operate them, have used their privileged status, and tax dollars, to venture beyond their charters. Such ventures have incurred the wrath of the Professional Services Council (PSC), an association of for-profit consulting firms, which has fought the aggrandizement of FFRDCs since the early 1970s. PSC's task force on FFRDCs "is charged with the challenging task of containing FFRDCs and similar quasi-governmental entities that benefit from sole-source contracting or otherwise are subsidized unfairly by the federal government...". The efforts have paid off, to some extent, in tighter controls on the funding of FFRDCs and the types of research they are allowed to undertake.


Think Tanks (Source Watch)