Polls show that Americans’ trust in national institutions, especially those connected with government, is hovering around an all-time low. It is no surprise that think tanks are targets of scrutiny since they, too, are an American institution, going back to their invention early in the last century. Brookings, where I’ve worked for the past twelve years, has, in the last week, been among several Washington-based think tanks that have come in for criticism—first from The New York Times and then from John Judis—for accepting donations from foreign governments to help support their work.
That’s a valid issue for debate, not just in the media but among the scholars and managers of individual organizations as well as within the think tank sector as a whole. The ethics and rules that guide and limit our fundraising are crucial to the integrity of our work and the reputation of our enterprise as well as vital to our mission.
If there is one word that sums up what think tankery is all about, it’s governance. Just as war is too important to leave to generals, governance is too important to leave to elected and appointed officials. Since governance is at the core of a think tank’s agenda, the way it governs itself—notably in its funding practices—is all the more legitimate subject for public to understand and, if warranted, to call into question. And since think tankers are also in the business of having an impact—that is, influencing our fellow citizens and our political leaders—we are all the more obliged to be as forthcoming as possible about our safeguards against any perception of undue influence over our work.
Yet we need philanthropic support. Unlike educational institutions, we do not have tuition-paying students or grateful parents and alumni. Unlike museums and symphony orchestras, we have no subscription series. A number of us have endowments, but in most cases they cover only a portion of our costs. What we do have are scholars whose expertise allows them to develop fresh, bold, pragmatic solutions to the major problems of our time as well as the capability to engage the public and policymakers alike.
The good news for think tanks is that there is philanthropic support for our work. Certainly, any NGO leader would agree that the most welcome form is core support, or “unrestricted” funding. But the philanthropic culture is changing. Increasingly, the corporations, private donors, and foundations on whom we depend are, rightly so, emphasizing specific areas where they want to see their investment paying off in measurable progress or change. That is a legitimate requirement on the supply side of the development relationship, but it puts additional onus on those of us who represent the demand side to make sure we retain the final say on the projects our scholars undertake and the work they produce.
That issue is at the heart of a tension between two imperatives that virtually every think tank must reconcile: protecting its independence while raising the funds to stay in business. For many of us, the guiding principle is to solicit and accept funds from donors who respect and accept the proposition that the sole authority for a think tank’s decision-making resides with its governing board, its management, and, crucially, its scholars, whose individual independence is protected by our institutional commitment to academic freedom. Think tanks should never accept a donation that is conditioned on providing recommendations that the donor is hoping for. (Where I work, we call this no-go zone Jeopardy Research: You tell us the answer you want, and we’ll design the question accordingly).
It’s against that backdrop that a number of my counterparts on Washington’s think tank row are responding to The New York Times and The New Republic’s criticism of our receiving funds from foreign governments. I reject the premise of the Times’s headline (“Foreign Powers Buy Influence in Think Tanks”) and dispute both the accuracy and the conclusions of the article. I also disagree with John Judis’s argument that foreign-government funding of think tanks is, inherently, “corrupting [American] democracy.” But the question they, and others, have raised about whether foreign-governments should fund think tanks deserves an answer. Mine is a qualified “yes.”
As non-governmental organizations, we must never work for governments. But, I believe, it is entirely appropriate for us to work with them when we have the capacity to contribute analysis and prescription on issues that they are dealing with in the policy realm.
A number of think tanks, including Brookings, steer clear of contracting out research to governments, since doing so almost always involves either classified or proprietary projects, which are contrary to our commitment to transparency. Instead, we rely on donations—from individuals, philanthropies, corporations, and, emphatically, governments—that have no strings attached.
The U.S. government provides a very small portion of Brookings’s funding, exclusively in the form of grants and largely in support of healthcare research and designing computer-based models that help predict the outbreak of infectious diseases. Much of the funding we receive from foreign governments is in support of events at which experts, representatives of civil society, and officials of the U.S. and other governments gather for discussion and brainstorming on topics of mutual interest, and to support the operation of Brookings research centers on the ground in two regions of the world: the Middle East and Asia.
To put what we believe is best practice in the negative: We must never be, nor seem to be, in the role of PR consultants, not to mention lobbyists or advocates-for-hire. There are plenty of those around, eager for that sort of business. What think tanks have to offer—and should confine ourselves to offering—is a public good: high-quality, empirically-based, in-depth policy-relevant research and recommendations. That capacity is valuable to governments, just as it is to the private and philanthropic sectors. And it is valuable largely because those ideas and services come from an independent, impartial source.
Having served in government for eight years, I can attest that there is a market for what think tanks produce. Government officials have to work so hard to keep abreast of the duties, challenges, and crises of the day that they simply do not have time to step back, rethink, look ahead, and test policy against constructive criticism and alternative views. Most of the people I worked with in government were acutely aware that they needed that kind of input—and that it is primarily available from outside, in a marketplace of ideas that is wide open, kaleidoscopically diverse, and highly competitive.
And having, earlier in my career, spent more than two decades as a journalist, I see a version of the best of that profession in the best of the think tank world: reverence for facts, irreverence toward dogma, and commitment to the Jeffersonian principle that an informed citizenry is crucial to the health of democracy.
Those features were on display when the leaders of 56 North American think tanks gathered in Washington in April for a day-and-a-half “summit” to brainstorm common challenges and opportunities. Some of the organizations that participated are focused on single issues, others cover a wide array; some identify themselves with a particular ideology or single political perspective, others—like Brookings—are nonpartisan, intellectually pluralistic, and encourage a civil contest of views. Nonetheless, there was a high degree of consensus that the crown jewel of our profession, which we must protect, is independence. In recent weeks, we’ve been reminded that, in order to keep the public trust, each of our institutions needs to subject its own practices to the same constant, rigorous assessment that we apply to other institutions of American democracy. No doubt we will find some areas for improvement, in which case we and the society we serve will be the beneficiaries.