May 10, 2016 Print

Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress, Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, Tom Carver of the Carnegie Endowment, David Boaz of the Cato Institute, and William Galston of the Brookings Institution. Photo credit:

Think tanks conducting innovative research into economics, public policy, and social science have proliferated in recent years, and the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at the University of Pennsylvania has held an annual North America Summit for the past three years to discuss the challenges that think tanks face. Co-hosted this year by Atlas Network partner the Hudson Institute, along with the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this year’s conference addressed “Assuring the Quality, Independence, and Integrity of Think Tanks,” reported Atlas Network Chairman Alex Chafuen in a recent commentary at Representatives from other Atlas Network partners also participated in the conference, including the Independent Institute, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and the Cato Institute.

The public does not always perceive a clear line between rigorous independent research and political lobbying, Chafuen points out, and observers may view intellectual inquiry with suspicion when it is funded by people with unclear agendas — as well as the fact that different scholars pursuing different research projects sometimes reach conclusions that are at variance with each other.

“Negative perceptions of think tanks often rise from conflicting visions of the role and purpose of these types of organizations,” Chafuen writes. “Think tanks sometimes pursue opposite policy goals, that is to say, what one regards as an accomplishment, the other regards as a destructive result. Promoted by ‘progressives’ and despised by conservatives, Obamacare is a case in point. The same with immigration. Often there is a perception that rather than basing their policy prescriptions on independent research, think tanks do the opposite: they start with a conclusion commissioned by donors and supporters, and then produce research to accommodate that predetermined narrative.”

Calls for greater transparency in think tank funding have often taken a sinister and punitive form, with city governments threatening to rescind the nonprofit status of think tanks working on tax reform research, the Internal Revenue Service targeting fiscally conservative organizations with extra audit scrutiny, and the legal targeting of the Competitive Enterprise Institute because of its climate change research. This kind of politically motivated targeting from the government is an even bigger problem in places like Venezuela, “a country where the government detains political opponents,” Chafuen explains, and so the think tank CEDICE Freedom must keep its donor information as confidential as possible.

“In countries with weak rule of law, the only think tanks that can be transparent are those who are allied with their corrupt governments,” Chafuen writes. “In the United States, the recent cases that bring the politicization of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to surface are cause of additional alarm. While all non-profits in the United States have to disclose their main donors to the IRS, no such obligation exists for state filings or for public disclosure. Several states, however, including New York and California, are requesting the same information that is submitted to the federal government. Due to fears that information will be leaked for political objectives, several think tanks are challenging this request. As I mentioned in an earlier column, when rule of law is politicized, transparency is a complicated topic.”