Are Canadian think tanks in decline? At least two scholars think so. Here are some excerpts:
The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre just announced that it was closing its doors for good. And they are not alone. While Canada has never fielded an abundance of think tanks, our most venerable foreign policy organizations are falling like dominoes. A few years ago the Montreal-based Rights and Democracy folded amid internal wrangling, quickly followed by FOCAL, Canada’s largest Americas-focused foundation. Today Ottawa´s esteemed North-South Institute is on the rocks. Non-government institutions on the left and, to a lesser extent, right and centre, are being defunded and fading away.
The decline in Canada's think tanks could not come at a worse time given global transformations underway. Until recently, national and multilateral entities and processes were what got things done. But as power and influence shifts away from governments and toward private and non-profit sectors, large firms such as Google, private philanthropic groups like the Gates Foundation, and established think tanks including the Brookings Institution wield more clout than ever. The silence from Canada’s non-governmental sector carries serious implications for our international standing.
Some liberal critics blame the demise of Canadian international affairs think tanks on the government's intolerance of dissent. They argue that left-leaning organizations are being squeezed out of existence. The recent proliferation of right-wing advocacy groups across Canada feeds their fears. And while there is some truth to this, the real origins of Canada’s think tank malaise extend well before the present government. They can be summed up as a lack of fiscal and policy innovation.
Fiscally, the quiet extinction of Canada’s think tanks is due to a culture of dependence. For decades Canada’s non-governmental sector was weaned on public funds. Despite repeated warning signs, not least the 2008 financial crisis, many were unable to diversify their sources of income or build lasting public-private partnerships. In the absence of a robust philanthropic sector for public policy — as in the United States — thinks tanks were unable to adapt.
On the policy front, many think tank survivors appear tired and worn-out. Their programs are often anchored in 20th-century debates, find little purchase in government circles and have yet to take full advantage of 21st-century social and technological innovation. While no one doubts the passion and commitment they bring to their work, their outputs feel oddly out of step with today´s global conversations.
This lack of innovation has resulted in a loss of talent. Generations of Canada’s best and brightest have opted for well-resourced think tanks abroad, moving in droves to Geneva, London, New York and Washington to tap fresh ideas and resources, leaving the insulated world of Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver behind. With the exception of a handful of public policy research institutes, there is simply too little action to keep Canadian talent in the country.
Think tanks amplify Canada's voice in the world. With so few Canadian groups contributing to decision-making in the United Nations or involved in public and private discussions underway in the Americas, Africa and Asia, we´re out of the loop. A recent global assessment of the top 150 think tanks from around the world includes just two Canadian entities, the Fraser Institute (25) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (41).
The opinion piece was written by Robert Muggah, Research Director of the SecDev Foundation, and Research Director of the Igarapé Institute in Brazil, and Taylor Owen, Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of OpenCanada.org.
Here is a list of Canadian think tanks from McGill University in Canada. Here is another list of Canadian think tanks from the University of Alberta. Here is yet another list from the University of Calgary. Here is a paper on conservative think tanks in the US and Canada, by Martin Thunert. Here is what Alejandro Chafuen recently had to say about Canadian think tanks.
Here is more on the closing of the Pearson Centre. The former head of the think tank, Alex Morrison, laments its closing.
According to the latest survey by the University of Pennsylvania, Canada has 96 think tanks, ranking it the country with the 11th largest presence of think tanks. The United States has 1,823 think tanks. Only two Canadian think tanks made the "Top 150" global think tanks list: Fraser Institute, which is ranked as the 25th best think tank in the world, and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which is ranked #41.
The same study ranks the top 10 think tanks in Canada:
- Fraser Institute
- North-South Institute
- Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute
- C.D. Howe Institute
- Canadian International Council
- Institute for Research on Public Policy
- Macdonald-Laurier Institute
- Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS)
- Conference Board of Canada