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.