OP-ED: The Relevance of Think Tanks in the Current Administration

By: Stephen Purcell

Think tanks produce research that informs policy. That is, fundamentally, what they do and why they matter. When policymakers govern in spite of evidence—in particular the purpose-built evidence gathered by think tanks—it’s more than an insult. It’s an existential threat to the industry. 

How, then, should a think tank respond to such a policymaker?

Looking at the Rand Corporation, the think tank whose 2016 report demonstrated the negligible cost of allowing transgender Americans to serve in the armed forces, the answer seems to be: quietly, if at all.

Through the summer, journalists rightly used Rand’s study as evidence that President Trump’s efforts to rescind the rights of transgender military personnel had little to do with his stated motive of financial responsibility. Rand itself, however, made only the austere protest of posting its original work on its social media pages, even as Trump’s statements shifted alarmingly from promises to policy.

What’s striking here is not so much that Trump’s decision contradicted Rand’s research, but that he justified himself with the very argument that the report disproves. He never claimed that Rand’s work was wrong, misleading, or beside the point. Instead, he ignored it, forcing Rand out of the discussion altogether. This is what I mean by an existential threat.

Rand’s laconic response demonstrates their faith that information speaks for itself and that their role is to produce and provide—but not actively defend—such information. These stoic principles define Rand and many other think tanks.

Not all think tanks think like this, though. For some, policy research means acting on the knowledge they generate. Some people label these organizations “think-and-do tanks,” as if they were just noisily engagé knockoffs of true think tanks. What this dismissive nickname overlooks, though, is that some of the most influential think tanks operate this way. Amnesty International’s humanitarian project blends research, advocacy, and activism, while the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung—one of Germany’s most prominent think tanks—aligns itself with the nation’s Christian Democratic Party. These are not only legitimate think tanks but profoundly important ones.

Properly acknowledging these engaged groups, we might think there are two categories of think tanks: the discoverers of the truth, and the truth’s defenders. But even this is too simple. Instead, contrasting Rand’s stoicism with Amnesty International’s activism suggests two models of what a think tank does. Individual think tanks may gravitate towards one or another, but, whether they realize it or not, being a think tank means being both. At their core, think tanks suggest that these two tasks are the same.

Consider the history of think tanks. They have existed for over a century, but the event that ignited their growth and solidified their policymaking status was the Cold War. The US government needed experts to weigh in on strategic, scientific, and political quandaries, but universities were uneasy about their professors taking on such politically engaged roles. The think tank became a way for professors to research and cooperate on government projects without implying that they did so as representatives of their home institutions.

It’s easy to read this as a movement from objective and disengaged research to goal-driven, partisan advising. Instead, though, it marks a dispute over what those categories mean, whether participation in political decision-making compromises or—in some cases—furthers the pursuit of knowledge. The think tank represented the idea that academically rigorous thought and political action are, at times, necessarily intertwined. (The humanities have developed similarly through the 20th century, as literary theorists shifted from formalist approaches that sought single, objective interpretations severed from historical and ideological contexts to theories that embrace the interconnectedness of texts and their political, cultural, and intellectual circumstances.)

Even the phrase “think tank” links thought with practicality and contextual embeddedness. (Whether we use a tank to fight a battle or house a goldfish, we judge it by how well it works.) To be a think tank is to see the two as, potentially, the same thing.

Recognizing this bond between knowledge and efficacy, the question for researchers in think tanks becomes how best to generate rigorous and politically purposeful research. Think tanks may answer that question differently from one another, but that is the unifying question to which they all respond.

I began this essay by claiming that think tanks face an existential threat from policymakers who are willfully ignorant of their advice. The better term, though, might be “existential crisis”—not necessarily an event that threatens to eradicate think tanks, but circumstances that challenge them to define themselves and their purpose more clearly.

I’ve tried to indicate what this existential crisis is, and how think tanks might respond to it. By framing the goal of a think tank as a response to a question, I want to find what organizations like Rand and Amnesty International share, but I also hope to clarify what those organizations are while allowing for variation and transformation. As political circumstances change—as they are changing in Trump’s post-truth America—so too may a think tank’s answers.

OP-ED: Why Saudi Arabia Should Invest in Think Tanks

By: Corey Driscoll

Over the past decade, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has played an increasingly important role in both regional and global politics, and although rapid political ascents are often accompanied by the robust expansion of a country’s policy advice institutions, this has not been the case with Saudi Arabia. The overall development of these institutions, particularly think tanks, has for the most part been completely stagnant in the kingdom. If Saudi rulers want to fully seize their county’s potential as a regional powerhouse, then they must develop the capacity of such think tanks and knowledge-based institutions. This entails both government initiatives to found new think tanks and expand current ones, as well as changing the Saudi legal code to promote the development of free thought.

There are a variety of ways that investing in knowledge production could benefit the Saudis. For instance, think tanks often provide excellent and diverse sources of knowledge from which government policy makers draw upon. For this reason and many others, most world powers are already keen on utilizing them. However, Saudi Arabia lacks in both the number and quality of its think tanks, especially when compared to other states in the region. The Kingdom has eight think tanks, compared to Iran’s 67, Israel’s 67, Turkey’s 46, and Egypt’s 39. These nations are all comparable in their geopolitical and economic centrality to the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. As mentioned, the Saudis also fall behind in the quality of their think tanks. In the 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, the kingdom had only one think tank among the “Top Globally Ranked MENA Think Tanks”, compared to Turkey’s 10 and Israel’s seven. To realize their ambitions of transcending above Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel to become an undisputed regional hegemon, the Saudis should turn their investment to think tanks.

On top of this, think tanks excel in economic research, which also happens to be a critical policy area for Saudi Arabia, whose economic future is quite unpredictable. As a rentier state, the vast majority of the kingdom’s revenue comes from oil profits, yet as oil prices have declined over the past few years there has been a push to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil. At the center of that effort is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who has spearheaded a policy called “Saudi Vision 2030” seeking to diversify the country’s sources of revenue. Alas, diversifying an economy is a hard and complicated task, and the kingdom’s rulers need institutions like think tanks to provide them with proper policy advice in handling this transition.

Another reason Saudi Arabia should invest in knowledge-producing institutions is that after the passing of the JCPOA, the divide between the kingdom and Iran is slowly shifting from a conflict based on hard power to one determined by soft power. Iran has seemingly given up on its short-term nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic viability. It will increasingly challenge Saudi Arabia through soft power tactics such as trade and diplomacy. Countering such an offensive will require much more comprehensive and flexible planning than conventional warfare contingencies provide. This is the type of planning that is best done by think tanks, whose sole purpose is often designing comprehensive solutions to intricate and vaguely defined problems.

There are those who say the political stability of Saudi Arabia is due to its practice of stifling the internal development of thought. While complete autocracy and a total repression of free thought may seem stable to some, it also entails a lack of innovation in most sectors of society. A society that does not innovate is one destined to stagnate, a lesson that China had in mind when it introduced hybrid-capitalism to its special economic zones (SEZ’s). MBS has already recognized this through his 2030 plan, with which he intends to introduce an entertainment industry to one of the most conservative societies on Earth. On top of decrepit innovation in policy and knowledge, autocracy also comes with a general restriction of citizens’ civil and political rights. The long-term restriction of these rights to a large swath of society may destabilize the state as eventually these citizens will demand greater freedoms.

Saudi Arabia should allocate at the very least a small portion of its budget to the development of knowledge-based institutions. It could complement this by providing subsidies to think tanks under development and introducing legislation to restrict the government’s censoring capabilities. This will lead to less self-censorship within the Saudi academic community, as well as the pursuit of previously unexplored avenues of knowledge. Should it implement these policies, Saudi rulers will eventually find their country far more competitive in economics, politics, and academia, all goals of MBS’s “Vision 2030”.

Corey Driscoll is an intern at TTCSP.  Please contact Dr. McGann to get in touch with him.

2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report Launch

Think Tanks & Civil Societies Program

The Lauder Institute

The University of Pennsylvania

February 1, 2018

Greetings, I am pleased to share with you the link for the 11th, 2017 edition of the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report  You can now post and circulated this copy of the Report.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the 175 organizations in more than a 100 cities around the world that launched the world with Why Think Tanks Matter in an Era of Digital and Political Disruptions. 

You are encouraged to post and share the report with your network of friends and colleagues and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions for we can improve the indexing process. 

Thanks again for helping the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the Lauder Institute, University of Pennsylvania raise the profile, performance and impact of think tanks around.

 We appreciate your support and value your participation and feedback

All the best, Jim McGann

2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report  & Why Think Tanks Matter Docs

Global Go To Think Tank Index Report link: http://repository.upenn.edu/think_tanks/13/  

Global Go to Index Report and Why Think Tanks Matter Event welcome address text by Dr. McGann link: http://repository.upenn.edu/think_tanks/14/  

Why Think Tanks Matter video link: http://repository.upenn.edu/think_tanks/15/  or https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1xRlh_J1hluCazPJ7CdhLKqLmkcHgKdWy

OP-ED: Independence and Intellectual Diversity: The Next Step in China’s Think Tank Development

By: Zaki Atia

Xi Jingping has made it clear that the development of “think tanks with Chinese characteristics” is an essential objective for his administration. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been committing substantial intellectual and financial resources to its state affiliated think tanks in order to realize this goal. However, the Chinese think tank landscape still has a long way to go if it wishes to have the same international outreach and prestige as its western counterparts.

Many think tank scholars argue that while the Chinese think tank landscape is rapidly expanding, it is still in an early stage of development. As Wang and Lu put it, China’s state affiliated think tanks are “big but not strong,” university institutions are “too academically high-brow,” and private think tanks are “weak and weary.” Huang Yangzhou is even more critical, and argues the CCP’s major investments in think tanks are just “a think-tank Great Leap Forward” because the current development strategy favors quantity over quality.  

For China’s think tank environment to get past these limitations and thrive, it must embrace intellectual diversity. The best means for the Chinese government to promote diversity in its think tank landscape is to pave the way for distinct operational models that allow for independent and private think tanks.  

The Chinese state should include independent and non-partisan think tanks in its vision. It is unclear what defines a “think tank with Chinese characteristics,” but one could speculate that it is a research institution entirely tied to the CCP. Despite how China’s state affiliated institutions have the most resources, think tank experts often criticize them for reproducing the same low-quality research and justifying the CCP’s status quo policy decisions rather than innovating new policy options.

To the credit of these state affiliated research institutions, historically there have been instances when China’s major foreign policy initiatives came from state-based think tanks. For example, Hu Jintao’s “Peaceful Rise of China” concept can be traced back to the Central Party School think tank. It is over-simplistic to assert that China’s current think tanks are purely mouthpieces for the state that will always fail to produce meaningful research.

Still, there are several reasons why allowing state affiliated and independent research institutions to both play large roles in China’s think tank landscape would be ideal for Chinese foreign policy. First, it would maximize the number of options considered by policy-makers. Independent think tanks diversify China’s public policy research because they are not limited by the parameters set by the CCP. If policy options that are distinct from state discourse are examined, Chinese policy-makers will be more equipped to address the countries many public policy challenges. Second, independence enhances the reputation of a think tanks and bolsters the credibility of Chinese research. The Brookings Institution is consistently ranked as the highest quality research institution in the world by the TTSCP’s Go to Global Think Tank Index, and a crucial factor for that ranking is the Brooking’s independent status that garners respect from think tank scholars. If Chinese tanks wish to have the same prestige and international recognition, independence is essential.

However, China’s current think tank environment does not adhere to a feasible operational model for independent research institutions. China’s private and independent think tanks will likely benefit from examining the operational model of other international top-tier think tanks. For example, the Brookings Institution deliberately enforces several regulations to maintain the independent and non-partisan image it has cultivated for over a century. Donors are not permitted to influence topics of research and any grant is turned down if it violates this principle. This system works in the US because donors to non-profits are provided tax exemptions, but the IRS requires all non-profits to publicly disclose their primary sources of funding. The US legal framework is immensely beneficial for the welfare of independent think tanks, because it incentivizes donations and transparency. The CCP can adopt a similar framework to pave the way for independent think tanks with robust funding and international prestige.

The Brookings Institution was founded by a wealthy businessman and was able to maintain funding through the donations of multiple other foundations and entrepreneurs. China’s plethora of wealthy business elites are in a similar position to establish and fund China’s own “Brookings.” It is up to the CCP to tap into this potential by providing the incentive for new operational models, rather than allow China’s state affiliated research institutions to crowd out the rest of the think tank landscape

 

Zaki Atia is an intern at TTCSP.  Please contact Dr. McGann to get in touch with him.

MED 2017 Day Three Highlights

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ABOUT MED 2017

MED 2017 is the 3rd edition of the annual high–level initiative, co–organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). This event is intended to turn Rome into a global hub for high–level dialogues on the broader Mediterranean, with a view to re–thinking traditional approaches and drafting a new "positive agenda". 

The event is by invitation only

THIRD DAY SPEECHES

THE US ADMINISTRATION AND THE MIDDLE EAST The Session discussed the Middle Eastern politics of the Trump Administration in the context of political divisions in the Gulf, post–conflict Syria and the Libyan crisis. 

THE US ADMINISTRATION AND THE MIDDLE EAST

The Session discussed the Middle Eastern politics of the Trump Administration in the context of political divisions in the Gulf, post–conflict Syria and the Libyan crisis. 

DIALOGUE TOWARDS A MEDITERRANEAN PROSPERITY The Dialogue discussed the promotion of sustainable development for the Mediterranean region, which includes economic, social and environmental issues. The role of China in supporting regional economy was also a key focus of the meeting.

DIALOGUE TOWARDS A MEDITERRANEAN PROSPERITY

The Dialogue discussed the promotion of sustainable development for the Mediterranean region, which includes economic, social and environmental issues. The role of China in supporting regional economy was also a key focus of the meeting.

A VIEW FROM QATAR  Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al–Thani, Qatar Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, shared his country’s view on the main regional issues. 

A VIEW FROM QATAR 

Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al–Thani, Qatar Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, shared his country’s view on the main regional issues. 

DIALOGUE WITH GHASSAN SALAMÉ Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative and Head of UNSMIL (United Nations), discussed the Libyan peace process and the prospect for national reconciliation.

DIALOGUE WITH GHASSAN SALAMÉ

Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative and Head of UNSMIL (United Nations), discussed the Libyan peace process and the prospect for national reconciliation.

DIALOGUE WITH ABRAHAM YEHOSHUAThe Israeli writer Abraham Yehoshua provided his view on the shared identity elements in the Mediterranean region. 

DIALOGUE WITH ABRAHAM YEHOSHUAThe Israeli writer Abraham Yehoshua provided his view on the shared identity elements in the Mediterranean region. 

CLOSING SESSION Paolo Gentiloni, President of the Council of Ministers of Italy, and Angelino Alfano, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, concluded the third edition of RomeMed, highlighting the main results of the meeting. 

CLOSING SESSION

Paolo Gentiloni, President of the Council of Ministers of Italy, and Angelino Alfano, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, concluded the third edition of RomeMed, highlighting the main results of the meeting. 

THIRD DAY INTERVIEWS


MED SPEAKERS

MICHAEL KÖHLER

Director, Neighbourhood South, DG NEAR, European Commission

DINA FAKOUSSA

Head, Middle East North Africa Programme, DGAP, Germany

IBRAHIM AL–JAAFARI

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Iraq

OLIVIER ROY

Joint Chair in Mediterranean Studies, RSCAS, EUI

ALAIN AOUN

Vice Chair, Defense and Interior Committee, Lebanese Parliament

ALESSANDRO PROFUMO

CEO, Leonardo, Italy

GIOVANNI OTTATI

President of Confindustria Assafrica & Mediterraneo

ROSE GOTTEMOELLER

Deputy Secretary General, NATO

LORENZO VIDINO

Radicalisation and International Terrorism Centre, ISPI

ABRAHAM YEHOSHUA

Writer, Israel

JEFFREY SACHS

Director, Earth Institute, Columbia University, United States of America

WISSAM FATTOUH

Secretary General, Union of Arab Banks, Lebanon


A Quick Policy Brief by the Europe Team

The European Union was established to promote social, political and economic harmony among the states of Europe and to further encourage transparency and cooperation. Europe has been successful in recent years, among other things, in avoiding military conflict, in transferring institutions and legal know-how from member states to candidate countries, in eliminating income gaps between EU countries and in successfully integrating post-communist countries into democratic states with functioning market economies and the rule of law. However, the European Union is constantly challenged, and uncertainty seems to be the prevailing sentiment across the continent, questioning the extent to which the states of Europe are united.

We identified that the most salient and vexing challenges facing the European Union today are the rise of populist parties, and consequently, isolationist trends, as well as immigration due to the refugee crisis across Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the instability of the Eurozone, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the devastating terrorist attacks, and the “threat” of new member nations pose various problems for the states of Europe and challenge their unity. Due to these issues, countries such as Britain, who were leaders in EU governance and stability have voted to prioritize national interests at the expense of international cooperation. Following Brexit, uncertainties have increased exponentially. Now, into late 2017, a series of referendums around the European Union have sparked heated dialogue over the role of centralized government at the national and supranational levels. Britain is joined by separatist motivations in Catalan. Northern Italians question the distribution of resources from Rome. The Fidesz and Jobbik parties urge Viktor Orban to challenge Western Europe’s liberal values. Everywhere it seems, austerity measures following the 2008 Financial Crisis have incubated divisive relations between cities, regions, and member states.

Our report examines those major developments in the European Union over the last half decade that challenge the continent’s legacy of peace, cooperation, and integrationist agenda. While it is true that each country we focus on present their current events with a unique profile, we believe that common themes emerge from each context. Through an attention to populism and migration, the following examples instantiate the political, economic, and military consequences of a destabilized European Union.

The Europe Team is led by Ioanna Krontira

Global Trends and Transitions in Security Expertise has been Released!

James McGann's latest book has been published and is available for purchase.  

The scope of Security and International Affairs (SIA) research has expanded tremendously since the end of the Cold War to include topics beyond the realm of war studies or military statecraft. A field once devoted solely to the study of conventional military and nuclear security issues has diversified to include foci often considered nontraditional, including peace and conflict, political, economic, environmental, and human security. 
In this exciting new volume, McGann has undertaken a quantitative and qualitative study of SIA think tanks, looking at global and regional trends in their research. He argues that the end of the Cold War marked a fundamental shift within the field of defense and security studies among think tanks and academics. Tracking the evolution of security as understood by researchers and policymakers is vital as the world follows the path of the “Four Mores”: more issues, more actors, more competition, and more conflict. As we move forward into a world of rapid change and ubiquitous uncertainty, think tanks will only become more prominent and influential. This will be an important resource for students and scholars of security studies, global governance, and think tanks.
The volume concludes with an assessment of the future of Security and International Affairs studies and raises the possibility of a return to a traditional security focus driven by recent events in Europe and the Middle East. This will be an important resource for students and scholars of security studies, global governance, and think tanks.

Copies may be purchased here

Fill out Global Go To Think Tank Index Open Source Ranking Survey

Greetings Colleagues and Friends:

In an effort to encourage the input from a broad range of individual and institutional perspectives from around the world, the 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index is pleased to announce the creation of an open access survey for the 2015 Index nominations and ranking process. 

Please submit your nominations on or before November 30, 2017, by using the survey link provided here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2017GOTOTT

The open source rankings will be are segregated from the rankings made by experts and peers and the ranking results will be tabulated separately. This enables us to open the process while maintain the quality and integrity of the process. 

The annual global ranking of think tanks is conducted with the help of volunteer research interns and without the benefit of funding from any source.

The schedule for the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index is as follows:

· Round I (Think Tank Nominations August 1 – October 1, 2017)
· Round II (Think Tank Ranking October 1 – November 30, 2017)
· Round III (Expert Panel Review November 30 – December 18, 2017)
· 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Launch in New York, Washington, DC and 120 cities around the world on January 30, 2018
· 2017 Global Go To Think Tanks Index Report Scheduled Release January 30, 2018


Please consult the definitions, nomination and ranking criteria, and tools for assessing think tanks when making your nominations. These are provided in the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Report which is posted on the University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons web site at: http://repository.upenn.edu/think_tanks/12/ for easy reference.

You can make up to 5 nominations per category. Please note that all nominations made will be kept strictly confidential. No self-rankings will be considered. Please submit your responses no later than November 30, 2017. In addition, there are now over 50,000 individuals and institutions that are included in the Global Go To Think Tank listserv.

Thanks for helping us increase the profile and performance of think tanks around the world.

All the best, 
Jim McGann


James G. McGann, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, International Studies
Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies
Director, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program
Wharton School and School of Arts and Sciences

Senior Fellow

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania