Increasing Importance of Think Tanks: Not If But Why

By: Katarzyna W. Sidło and Kateryna Karunska

The debate on the relevance of think tanks and, more broadly, experts, in the public life is by no means new. Back in 2014, in a now famous article eventually turned into a book, Tom Nichols proclaimed “death of expertise” — or rather death of acknowledgement thereof. A couple of years later, in a telling confirmation of his assessment, British justice secretary Michael Gove infamously stated during the Brexit debate that the public “have had enough of experts”. Even more straightforward was former president of the United States Donald Trump, who dismissed any inconvenient facts as “fake news”.

Indeed, it increasingly appears that think tanks, institutions originally established to support evidence-based policy making, have been enjoying less and less trust and respect not only from the very policy makers they have been aiming to advise, but also the general public. This is deeply unfortunate since in today’s mis- and disinformation riddled world, the work of think tanks is needed more than ever. Against this background, and in view of CASE thirtieth anniversary of delivering policy expertise, we are asking ourselves: what eroded the policymakers and public’s trust in think tanks and their experts? And what can be done to fix this?

Declining Trust

Against the unfolding evidence on fake research, unscalable mount of misinformation, and the ever-growing distrust into research, the credibility of think tanks and other knowledge-focused institutions is being increasingly questioned.

As the past trials confirmed, the research published by think tanks is consistently ranked fewfold lower on the credibility scale compared to the academic publication on the same issues. This has a lot to do with the branding of think tanks and the idea of their underlying ideological bias. The allegations of hidden lobbying and anchoring of research have thus led to think tanks being perceived as rather wasteful establishments used by different political powers to simply foster partisan interests and legitimatise preconceived policy initiatives.

The German labour market reform process of the early 2000s is often used to exemplify this critique. Specifically, the German government at the time promoted the inclusion of a think tank into tripartite discussion between government, employers, and trade unions to neutralise the stakeholders’ weight in the negotiations process under a pretence of “unbiased evidence” that supported its position.

As an increasing number of politically independent think tanks rely on grant funds and international donor support, many have raised concerns on the extent of their impartiality. Indeed, it is generally thought that think tanks, albeit supposedly objective, can be inclined to deliver findings that would align with the overarching ideology of the donor to keep the latter satisfied and secure access to funding for the future projects. Here again, the think tanks are not immune to allegations of hidden lobbying of the donor-fostered agenda into supposedly rationale-driven policymaking which makes transparency one of the core components of their credibility.

Yet, a more profound challenge lies in the aptness of think tanks to produce reputable and impartial research as such.

First, many think tanks often lack in-house capacity to engage in complex topics and consistently produce results compatible in quality to the academia. Some have also pointed to the “lack of practical relevance” in the output of certain think tanks and consider that the value added of think tanks is restricted to processing of the academic output into digestible and generally accessible format.

Second, the very existence of objective truth is problematic on its own. The belief in unbiased evidence and depolitisation of policymaking thus rely on the rationalist view of the world and the idea that any phenomenon can be objectively captured if more research is available. The reality of the policymaking processes, however, appears to be much more complex and calls for more critical perception of both the evidence and the role of thinks tanks.

Continued Relevance

Despite the growing criticism of the knowledge-focused institutions and the rooting of the “epistemic crisis”, think tanks have become more relevant than ever in the era of post-truth and have a unique momentum to rediscover their role and purpose.

The concerns on credibility and lack of objectivity thus should not be used to dismiss think tanks from the policymaking processes. First, it is important to consider that fully objective truth is hard to attaint in policy context and any research is inevitably influenced by the beliefs and backgrounds of those involved in it and the subsequent interpretation by media and decision-makers. Second, a distinction should be made between fact-based and data-driven research and ideologically anchored discussion of thereof. The credibility and partiality concerns should therefore not be generalised as the realm of think tanks appears highly diverse, ranging from government or political party affiliated, and corporate entities to university affiliated and fully autonomous and independent institutions.

The capacity to grasp the policy complexity and produce timely evidence strengthens the importance of thinks tanks against the “fast policy” needs of the modern decision-making processes. Indeed, it is this ability to quickly capture the emerging context and transform evidence into practice that academic research could hardly achieve. Thus, while having relatively smaller capacity than academia, think tanks capitalise on their ability to rapidly mobilise relevant experts from their networks and build flexible and often multidisciplinary teams.

Serving as the catalysts of new ideas, think tanks do not only play a key role in agenda-setting but are also able to expose the intrinsic confirmation bias of both policymaking and general public by exposing them to alternative views and providing a platform for public debates on the topical issues. This is particularly important in the era of post-truth when people claim not believing in statistics or science as such and increasingly support multiplying conspiracy ideas.

Thirty Years of CASE’s Contribution to the Policy Debate

With its thirtieth anniversary, CASE has rich experience in navigating this ever more complicated world of policy making. Established in 1991 with a goal of providing economic analysis and fostering the quality of policy making to improve lives of Europeans and their neighbours, CASE experts are no strangers to difficulties associated with delivering high quality expertise and advice under time constraints and limited resources.

During the early years, when Poland was undergoing transition from a centrally planned to a free market economy, CASE founding members[1] focused on the challenging task of providing expertise and advice on a broad range of topics, such as privatization and company restructuring or fiscal policies. Ever since, CASE has worked with various consecutive Polish administrations alongside a growing number of think tanks and consultancies operating in the country, with an aim of fostering and contributing to the healthiest of debates: one whereby various standpoints, provided that they are supported by rigorous research, are exchanged in a transparent and respectful way.

Strongly believing in the value of sharing the lessons learnt from the Polish transformation experience, CASE extended its operations to other Central Eastern European as well as former Soviet Union states. During the first half of the 1990s, CASE experts helped to develop reform programmes for Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz governments. Following Poland’s accession to the European Union, a move that CASE actively advocated for, CASE experts got involved in the debate on the future of the European Neighbourhood Policy and, more broadly, the European cohesion policy in general. Later on, CASE increased its engagement in the Southern Mediterranean countries, which at a time were experiencing a wave of democratic protests.

Today, CASE is proud to call itself an international think tank with strong Polish roots and strongly believes that the key to maintaining relevance while ensuring independence lies in diversification: of funding sources, research topics, audiences, and methodologies, as well as diversity of backgrounds of our experts. The work of CASE experts is frequently commissioned by the European Parliament, European Commission, and other EU institutions, but we also apply for academic research grants to allow our experts to pursue their own research interests on top of responding to the questions of policymakers. To make sure that results of their research are disseminated beyond the hermetic circles of policy making world and academia, CASE experts write opinion pieces, talk to the media outlets, and organise public events. In order to deliver top quality research, CASE hires economists of various specialisations, but also graduates from sociology, political science, international relations and other? area studies. Not least importantly, CASE works closely with other think tanks and research institutions in Europe and beyond, discussing the very questions outlined in the sections above.

The Future of Expertise

As the past debates on the credibility of the think tanks showcased, transparency regarding their intentions, funding, ideological standpoints, and potential bias should become a crucial component of their functioning. CASE’s own thirty years of experience in the policy-making world proves that making an active effort to do so truly pays off. Such an approach not only helps to build trust but also fosters an environment whereby one’s research results can be discussed and evaluated in an informed way.

Likewise, maintaining an open dialogue with policy makers, fellow researchers and institutes, as well as the media is crucial for ensuring that experts’ voices are heard in the cacophony of personal opinions. Over the years, CASE learnt that there is a particular value in being able to translate research findings into outputs specifically tailored for different audiences. There is hardly a better way to alienate or antagonize a person than by making them feel ignored or worse, patronized, by speaking to them in an obscure language they find hard to follow.

For the policymaking to become truly evidence-based, a more systemic approach is needed, however. Besides improving the quality and impartiality of the research itself, efforts should be made to increase the capacity of the decision-makers to deal with inputs provided by experts. This would entail not only the reduction of knowledge and skills gap for better understanding of the evidence but also establishment of knowledge units within the government institutions to foster evidence-informed processes throughout the policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation cycles.

[1] Tadeusz Baczko, Ewa Balcerowicz, Barbara Błaszczyk, Władysław Brzeski, Krzysztof Chmielewski, Andrzej Cylwik, Marek Dąbrowski, Anna Fornalczyk, Stanisława Golinowska, and Jacek Rostowski.

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CASE — Center for Social and Economic Research is an independent, non-profit economic and public policy research institution, established in 1991 in Warsaw.