July 27, 2016 Print

People sometimes perceive think tanks as mouthpieces for corporations or interest groups, created only to further an agenda through biased information. This view misses the point entirely, and misrepresents both the nature and the purpose of independent think tanks. “The Role of Think Tanks: A Reply to the Critics,” a recent paper published by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), an Atlas Network partner based in Australia, explains that “the role of think tanks in a democratic society is to engage in the battle of ideas by providing research-based advocacy and evidence-based commentary on pertinent public affairs.”

The paper, written by CIS Senior Research Fellow Jeremy Sammut, makes the point that “regardless of whether you line up on the left or right of the political spectrum, it is intellectually lazy to simply point the finger of ‘special interest’ at think tanks whose work is disliked or disagreed with.” Simply casting aspersions on the motives of opponents and alleging bad faith is a poor substitute for doing the hard work of engaging a think tank’s ideas with evidence and careful arguments.

“Yes, think tanks are values-based organisations, and their research emits ideological convictions,” Sammut writes. “(So too, of course, does academic research that doubles as left-wing advocacy.) But in seeking the support of fellow citizens and policymakers for those convictions, an effective think tank does not ask people to join a cult or take a leap of faith. Instead, they invite readers to acknowledge the logic of the ideas presented, and be convinced by the quality of the research and the facts and arguments adduced in support of the position set out.”

Sammut also explains that think tanks, by nature, lack major political influence. Indeed, “credibility is the only political asset a think tank can acquire, and credibility is achieved by work that is based on sound research.” This kind of rigorous, independent work isn’t on the political agenda of special interests who seek protectionist legislation.

“Paying a think tank to write a research report would be going the long, long way round to achieving the corporate objectives of influencing policy outcomes,” Sammut writes. “This is why large salaries and fees are paid to in-house lobbyists and external lobbying firms that have party-political connections (established by years of loyal party membership and service) and whose ‘strategic advice’ principally consists of the ability to get access to politicians and their staff to plead their corporate client’s case.”

To the extent that think tanks engage with the political process, Sammut explains, it is “in the best and classical sense of the term,” not electoral or partisan party politics. Think tanks provide information and logical arguments to the voting public, to educate them about positions that might differ from their own and raise the level of political discourse. Think tanks are creators and moderators of public debate, exposing the public “to new ideas, competing analyses, and different points of view.” It is only by engaging with opposing viewpoints that people truly educate themselves, and work together toward a brighter future.