A Look Back at the Future of Think Tanks

A few weeks ago, I attended a rather hastily convened roundtable at the European Council for Foreign Relations, to mark the release of another round of Jim McGarry’s global think tank index. Whatever one feels about the value of such indices, the overflowing room indicated there is clearly a strong appetite amongst the sector to reflect on its own role in the political sphere and beyond, and the successes and challenges it faces.

The discussion was intended to focus on the future of think tanks, but, given the room was largely populated by industry stalwarts in CEO and Directorship positions, it inevitably looked back to the changes that have taken place over the past decade. Many, particularly in the foreign affairs space, said that their size and operations had expanded significantly, meaning the question became: just why have think tanks built such a successful model in the UK?

Malcolm Chalmers from RUSI suggested that think tanks’ growth might reflect a certain sluggishness on the part of other types of more traditional research organisations to keep up in producing new forms of interesting and relevant research. He also highlighted their unique position as a mediating role between different communities and between the public and private sector. Others suggested that the scaling back of newspapers’ abilities to conduct long-form analysis and investigative reporting has left a black hole in the scrutiny of Government and society at large.

Think tanks’ increasingly prominent role in the public sphere has also impacted their internal structures: Chatham House’s Claire Spencer said that, as the organisation has doubled in size, its staff have also become younger, and its resources are increasingly directed towards messaging and keeping up with the media agenda. However, she cautioned that this is making it progressively difficult to address the kind of “long-term structural issues” that public policy should be seeking to correct.

Charles Grant from the CER explained that the new landscape was one of choices – particularly, how closely aligned to Government or political parties it is healthy to be, and how much emphasis to devote to media management. As for the role of think tanks, his view was that they should mimic the involvement of consultants in the private sector as agents of change validation. This was an idea echoed by Jeremy Shapiro (of the ECFR and Brookings), who sees think tanks as “loosening constraints” for policy-makers to effect change.

That said, he was quick to stress that this symbiotic relationship should not be suffocating – rather, think tanks should focus on producing “crazy” and “unviable” ideas, because it encourages the best atmosphere through which the very best ideas can evolve. This is a concept that really resonates here at Demos – a think tank that was founded with an express remit to be provocative and has deliberately sought to keep itself physically detached from Westminster. (As was recently mentioned to me, we are the only Westminster think tank closer to Kent than to the Houses of Parliament!).

It is obviously incredibly challenging for any think tank to be treading a line between policy influence and a desire to be provocative – but if you look at the think tanks that have endured here in the UK, it is those that have the clearest ethos that are the strongest bets to carry on in the future; even in the face of a landscape that has never been more contested. This cacophony of voices doesn’t just pose competitive challenges for think tanks themselves; as Daniel Korski, from Number 10’s policy unit, explained – it is increasingly difficult for policy-makers to sort the wheat from the chaff when the barriers to entry for think tanks have lowered so significantly.

Nonetheless, Korski stressed that the value for good quality research is high – particularly as a vehicle through which to enable the Government to sense-check a civil service often prone to group think and established ways.

At this point, the discussion was opened up to the floor – although the most interesting contribution came from the inimitable Mary Dejevsky, who boldly questioned the evident lack of female faces in the room (with even less sitting at the ‘roundtable’ itself) and again defended the role of “specialist knowledge and thinking” in the face of significant cuts to investigative and research journalism. As with Korski, having voices from outside of the sector can help ensure these kinds of discussions don’t become too insular, repetitive – or worse, self-congratulatory.

For my part, I couldn’t help but feel that the event would have benefited from greater representation from more of the younger leaders involved in the think tank space today – both from the research and communications/operations sides of things – given it is they that will be embodying the very future that was intended to be discussed. Or perhaps a separate event, truly looking ahead, is needed.