The Value of Think Tanks

April 4, 2017
The Value of Think Tanks
Dr. Ahmed Al Hamli
Dr. Ahmed Al Hamli President & Founder of TRENDS

Events in 2016 confounded the so-called “experts” leading to declarations about the death of expertise.  Following the outcome of the Brexit vote, or the Trump election to the USA Presidency, a key part of the discussion was why did the experts, analysts, predictors get it wrong?  A conclusion of this discussion was that the experts did not understand how things worked globally, nationally or locally, and, essentially, they can no longer be trusted.  As ever predictions on human behaviour are difficult to make but understanding how matters work and the possible options available is not a task that can be easily undertaken by anyone, so the experts will remain.

In today’s world governments are faced with complex situations and there is a clear need for expertise in a variety of forms; this is where think tanks come in.  In the recently released 2016 Go To Think Tank Index Report it is clear that think tanks continue to have an important contribution in formulating understandings of complex events in today’s world.  The Report explains “Policymakers need understandable, reliable, accessible, and useful information about the societies they govern. They also need to know how current policies are working, as well as to set out possible alternatives and their likely costs and consequences. This expanding need has fostered the growth of independent public policy research organization: the think tank community…”.[1]  TRENDS Research & Advisory has been part of the ongoing development of think tanks, being included in the 2016 Index, ranked at number 10 of the “Best New Think Tanks in the World”.  Since its creation in 2014 TRENDS has been working to advance ground-breaking research to further the quality of research and analysis in the study of national and international public policy issues.  The work of TRENDS has made a substantial contribution to the ongoing development of the think tank community locally and globally.

The Go To Global Think Tank Index is produced by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, an institution part of the prestigious Ivy League group of universities in the USA.  The Index first appeared in 2007 and has become known as “the insider’s guide to the global marketplace of ideas.” The Index highlights the growth of think tanks globally, along with the importance of the work done by think tanks to help policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy.  “Think tanks”, are defined by the report as “public-policy research analysis and engagement organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy.”[2]  The Index includes in this definition a wide range of institutions from private, for-profit companies, through to charities, university research centres, and government funded institutions.  The important link across these different types of institutions is that the work undertaken provides “a bridge between the academic and policymaking communities and between states and civil society, serving in the public interest as independent voices that translate applied and basic research into a language that is understandable, reliable, and accessible for policymakers and the public”.[3]

The Index is created through a process of review and recognition with over 4,750 policymakers, public and private donors, journalists, and subject area and geographical specialists providing information and feedback about the think tanks under review.  The TTCSP then assembles expert panels to assess and evaluate the information received before coming to the rankings in the Index.  The author of the report about the Index, James McGann explains that “the peer nomination and selection process, as well as the work of the international Expert Panels, have enabled us to create the most authoritative list of high performance think tanks in the world.”[4]

The 2016 Go To Global Think Tank Index included 6846 think tank institutions.  The USA is, by far, the country with the largest number of think tanks, with 1835.  All of Europe has 1770 think tanks.  At the same time, the Index discusses how think tank numbers are expanding in other regions of the world, showing a strong role for these institutions.  There are a number of reasons for the continuing growth of think tanks, including, but not limited to – the expansion of available information; increasing government and public policy actions and expectations; the increased complexity and technical nature of policy issues; and the ever increasing need for accurate and effective information “in the right form, in the right hands, at the right time”.  The reasons above have also contributed to the declining numbers of think tanks in some subject areas.  The wide range of information sources, along with ease of accessing information through technology has led to everyone being an expert on the basis of no research or analysis.  It also means that governments have multiple sources of information and advice coming to them.  Without any doubt, however, think tanks have, and will continue to have, importance and an impact in how policies are formed and decisions are taken.  This is because think tanks act as an essential bridge between knowledge and power, a task not everyone is capable of doing effectively.

TRENDS has contributed to the bridging process for information through its wide array of activities including publications, conferences, media contributions, and evidence provided to governments.  The TRENDS network consists of its in house staff, 40 Non-Resident Fellows, 7 institutional partners around the world.  In its first two years, TRENDS has been able to make a considerable impact in the world of policy formation and analysis, as well as providing authoritative information and interpretations regarding the GCC and world events.  The work of TRENDS has figured prominently in media outlets around with the world with its events being covered by newspaper, television and radio.  In the past six months TRENDS has provided expert evidence in two official government enquiries. I, as the President of TRENDS, gave evidence before the UK House of Lords in an inquiry about the change nature of power in the middle East.  And TRENDS made a key contribution to a study by the French Senate on causes of radicalisation and responses.

TRENDS has worked to build up its networks and partners to bring about a flow of information and ideas that cuts across political views, cultures and societies.  The 2016 Index explains how in a global market place of ideas, cooperation and partnerships among think tanks across national, regional, and global spheres is essential.[5]  Think tanks take many shapes, forms, and areas of interest.  Think tanks can be broad based organisation covering a wide scope of public policy issues, or they can be very specific on a single issue.  Think tanks may have a clear political orientation, falling on the right or the left of the political spectrum, or they an based on bi-partisan approaches.  It does not matter if a think tank is labelled right or left, or seen as being attached to any particular political programme or ideology.  In the marketplace of ideas none of this is problematic.  A think tank that is orientated towards a political stance or adopts a particular view is taking a position that it believes best explains how things work or should work.  Institutions that strive for a bi-partisan approach have a strong value as they bring in opposing views to work out common ground and ensure analysis has taken account of a range of ideas.  This is where think tanks are a strong bridge, as they present diverging views for consideration, providing an effective means for ensuring policy prescription have been fully considered.

Given the turmoil and seeming disorder the world and societies face today, a wide range of ideas and possible options need to be explored, debated and discussed.  Policy makers face many challenges in relation to the scale and scope of the issues they face, think tanks provide significant support for their tasks.  It is well known that decision makers have limited time to consider and decided upon an unlimited number of issues, needed to consider local, national and global implications for any decision or policy.  Think tanks serve as platforms for transmitting information in a manageable form to grab attention, but also to provide more in-depth research for further consideration.

It has been explained “We live in turbulent times that demand rigorous and innovative perspectives on issues and trends; think tanks contribute evidence and quality information to help tame policy tsunamis sweeping the globe.”[6]  This is, perhaps, an overly extended hyperbole, but the emphasis is sound.  In the unpredictable nature of today’s world, experts may get it right, or they may be wrong.  This does detract from the value of the input think tanks provide.  Rather than seeing a decline in the respect for expertise, increasingly, politicians, policy advisers, organisations and businesses are looking to think tanks to sort through the mountains of information that exists and to suggest and develop responses to the challenges being faced.  Think tanks will continue to grow and to provide a necessary service in helping to shape the decisions concerning our common future, acting as a critical bridge in support of knowledge.

The 2016 Go To Think Tank Index and, Report by James McGann can be found here  The TRENDS entry is at page 133, Table 33 (listed as TRENDS Policy and Research, confirmed by the Report’s author that this is TRENDS Research & Advisory).

[1] McGann, James G., “2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report” (2017).TTCSP Global Go To Think Tank Index Reports. 12. at 9.

[2] McGann, “2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report”, at 6.

[3]  McGann, James, Think Tanks and Policy Advice in the US (Routledge 2007).

[4] McGann, “2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report”, at 6.

[5] McGann, “2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report”, at 10.

[6] McGann, “2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report”, at 14.