Last week’s appointment of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to head the Heritage Foundation illustrates an important evolutionary change, going on for more than forty years, in Washington’s think tank community. Although there are many exceptions among Washington’s hundreds of think tanks, think tanks as a rule have been evolving from a type of organization that pursues disinterested public policy research, “a university without teaching,” to one that pursues research-based advocacy, “a lobbying shop with research staff.” Launched in 1973, Heritage has been a leader in this evolution.
The change in think tank leadership reflects a larger change in think tank personnel. The proportion of full-time think tank staff with Ph.D.’s, let alone former tenure track academics, has long been in decline.
DeMint’s move to Heritage also illustrates several other important think tank developments. That one of America’s most powerful politicians is willing, for the first time in U.S. history, to give up a seat in the Senate to lead a think tank as a full-time job, is testimony to the growing influence and wealth of modern think tanks.
The degree of taxpayer support for think tank compensation is also striking. Since think tanks are funded via tax deductible charitable donations, DeMint’s compensation will continue to be largely paid for, albeit indirectly, by taxpayers. Given the large step up from his former $174,000 salary as a member of the Senate, he may now cost U.S. taxpayers more as a think tank president than a U.S. Senator.