By: Eric Guo
To the unfamiliar, think tanks are organizations that generate policy-oriented research and advice for policymakers. Regardless of whether the advice is generated in-house or privately by think tanks such as Chatham House or the French Institute of Foreign Relations (IFRI), every government requires policy advice on complex issues, whether they be domestic, economic, or foreign affairs.
The use of think tanks by European policymakers is arguably different from that in the United States. The primary reason is because European governments often have a built-in class of senior civil servants that are able to generate policy internally who do not have high turnover rates like those in the US. Therefore, think tanks are not as proliferated in Western Europe as they are in the US. However, changes in the political climate necessitated the cooperation of smaller, partisan think tanks with political parties to enhance their agendas, leading to a greater proliferation of think tanks from the 1980s onwards. The change from nationally driven broad-based research institutes to issue-specific think tanks allowed for greater breadth of research and knowledge, becoming more conducive to addressing the interconnected issues of the modern day.
With the advent of the internet, a new medium of engagement has emerged. Some think tanks have begun looking to target not just policymakers, but also laymen, with their research. As more people begin to distrust regular news media, there is a rare opportunity for think tanks to fill the void by providing expert knowledge directly to common people. A new type of “virtual” think tank makes use of the internet to publish and disseminate, essentially becoming a think tank without brick and mortar. By doing so, more funding can be directed to research-related activities instead of ordinary expenses. One such example can be found in Polis 180, a grassroots virtual think tank founded at the Hertie School of Government in Berlin, focusing on foreign and European politics for young people.
In essence, think tanks have an opportunity to depart from obscurity, by working with civil society actors beyond governments. Expert knowledge will never run out of demand, therefore think tanks should consider enlarging their audience to increase impact.