How the world is changing think tanks

Think tanks changing
Brad Lips

Brad Lips | CEO, Atlas Network

Last week, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) celebrated its 60th anniversary in London. The IEA was the first think tank founded by the late Sir Antony Fisher, who would be turning 100 years old on Sunday, June 28. Fisher went on to help create the Fraser Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Pacific Research Institute before establishing in 1981 what became Atlas Network.

Atlas Network was Antony’s attempt to institutionalize the process of replicating en masse the think tank experiments that he had seen produce such great results. Atlas Network now connects 458 such organizations in 96 countries, and a sizable number of these organizations have had demonstrable impact on the policies of their city, state, or country.

I want to take the occasion of Fisher’s 100th birthday to reflect on how the think tank industry has changed since Antony’s passing just over a quarter century ago. In particular, I want to call attention to some of the challenges that merit debate and discussion among our community of leaders connected to Atlas Network, so we can be more strategic and more effective in the years ahead.

Let me begin with a somewhat trite observation: There are clearly more organizations working in this space than there were during Antony’s lifetime. Thirty years ago, Antony Fisher sent Atlas donors a mid-year report that listed 27 think tanks in 17 countries. We just sent out a directory of 458 partners in 96 countries. Of course, Atlas Network partners are a small slice of the overall think tank pie. The sector’s most comprehensive report now lists 6,618 think tanks around the world.1

We can look at these numbers and feel vindicated: The think tank model has survived the market test, and its proliferation is testimony to the value proposition of our work.

At the same time, there are challenges and serious questions that we must be vigilant about asking. For example, to what extent are vested interests creating think tanks to use as “fronts” to promote their agenda under a cloak of impartiality? Similarly, are otherwise independent think tanks tempted to use their credibility in a corrupt fashion? At a recent conference, I heard some top think tank leaders report that they are not infrequently lobbied to support particular policy positions.

This has it backward, and threatens the value proposition upon which our sector is founded. Think tanks are supposed to improve society by developing relevant research and offering new policy solutions independently. In this process, think tanks earn the institutional credibility that attracts financial support to sustain our efforts over the long term.

We ought to hold tightly to a central piece of wisdom that has been part of Atlas Network’s DNA. The late John Blundell listed “Independence is key” as his most important lesson on think tank management. He wrote:

The late Sir Antony G. A. Fisher spent 1987 to 1988 bashing me on the head with the word “independence.” Bash, bash, bash! My late mom was a retailer, and she used to say the secret of success was location, location, location. My elder son is a Director of Golf Operations for a major resort and says it is drainage, drainage, drainage. Antony used to say independence, independence, independence.2

The take-away lesson is to operate in line with your organizational mission and values, always, and to work tirelessly to cultivate a broad support base that expects your institute to remain faithful to core principles. This will undermine any possible accusation that your think tank is for sale.

Some think tanks (mostly on the left, where taking money from foreign governments has led to credibility questions) have proposed rules to disclose donors to the public, as a way of restoring trust. That seems dangerously misguided (or perhaps deviously clever). The U.S. Supreme Court held in NAACP v. Alabama that a nonprofit organization is not required to disclose the names of donors to the public. Such coerced “transparency” is unconstitutional, and can have the effect of stifling speech, dissuading donors from assisting a cause they cherish because they fear it will set them up for retaliation.

Friends of freedom need to be thoughtful about how to engage in this issue. Concerns over “dark money” (to use the terminology of those hoping to create alarm) ought not undermine philanthropists who have, in some circumstances, risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to help unpopular causes — which, sadly, is what liberty is in too many parts of the world.

Another challenge to this generation of think tanks comes from a donor community that is increasingly focused on “demonstrable results.” It is entirely right to challenge think tanks to focus on outcomes, not just outputs. Generating ideas is not an end in itself, and donors are right to be impatient with sleepy and self-satisfied think tanks that are content to preach to the converted.

At the same time, I worry that funding incentives are driving think tanks toward short-term objectives of perhaps less heft, similar to how public companies feel Wall Street’s pressure to meet next quarter’s earnings targets at the expense of smarter, longer-term plays. After all, part of Antony Fisher’s mantra was that think tanks should not be constrained by what is politically possible. The point is to change what is considered politically possible. Changing the “Overton Window” requires a lot of patience from stakeholders who might fret (not without reason) their donations only sustain the illusions of free-market Don Quixotes.

How think tanks can balance these competing interests — to demonstrate short-term progress to funders, and to stay faithful to the idea that long-term change is the true province for think tanks — deserves more discussion and debate.

Perhaps it’s telling that some organizations that have been honored by Atlas Network in recent years aren’t even self-identifying as “think tanks” anymore. TaxPayers’ Alliance is a “campaigning organization” that champions free-market policy reforms. Others talk about being a “do tank,” as though the term “think tank” is sullied by an image of ivory tower passivity.

If the terminology is evolving, it is doing so in tandem with important changes in the economy and culture. I won’t attempt to list all the ways in which technology has changed the work of think tanks since Antony Fisher’s day. Suffice it say, he never contemplated how to challenge the UK’s Common Agricultural Policy in a tweet!

As we think about the ways the think tank industry may continue to change in the future, however, we should look at how the biggest sectors for idea development and dissemination are changing. The print media is withering away in most places, leaving us to wonder where real investigative journalism will be done in the future. The entertainment industry is shaking up as well, evidenced by surveys showing that known personalities on YouTube are enjoying more popularity than stars of the silver screen among the next generation. It is unclear exactly how MOOCs (“massive open online courses”) and other innovations in academia will reshape higher education over the long term, but major disruption in that sector also seems inevitable.

The entire business of ideas is changing. It is noteworthy to consider that all three of these “ideas industries” — journalism, entertainment, and academia — are generally considered “biased,” to some degree, against classical liberal perspectives. Pro-liberty philanthropists should relish this opportunity to help remake the “ideas industry” writ large. Those of us who lead within the think tank sector and who have earned the trust of generous supporters must carve an ambitious path forward, combining our commitments to independence, innovation and impact to create a renewed vision for what is possible.

As we work to do so, we are well served to remember Antony’s legacy as a connector, recognizing that as a network we can learn faster, achieve more, and better navigate the big questions and challenges we face in advancing our great cause into the future.


1 James G. McGann, 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Report, University of Pennsylvania, 2015.

2 “40 Years and 34 Lessons Waging the War of Ideas,” State Policy Network, SPN News March/April 2014, p. 6.