Friday, November 7, 2014

Favorite Lines From WPost Piece on Brookings Funding

Now that Think Tank Watch has viewed enough of the Brookings Fight Club video, we'd thought it was finally time to summarize some of the interesting points in the recent Washington Post article on alleged donor influence on research at the Brookings Institution.

Following are our favorite lines from the Washington Post piece, titled "At Fast-Growing Brookings, Donors May Have an Impact on Research Agenda," and written by Tom Hamburger and Alexander Becker.

  • Over the past decade, a new business model has taken hold at Brookings. The Washington institution renowned for impeccable research and its clout as an independent policy architect has in recent years placed an emphasis on expansion and fundraising — giving scholars a bigger role in seeking money from donors and giving donors a voice in Brookings’s research agenda.
  • Lobbyists are increasingly encouraging clients to donate to Brookings and other think tanks as a way of getting researchers to spend time on the issues that donors care about. Lobbyists say they warn clients not to expect that they can dictate research results from an elite think tank such as Brookings but note that they gain a chance to make their case directly to researchers, stay in touch as papers are written and suggest participants in public forums.
  • Its [Brookings] hundreds of scholars — about 150 in-house and 250 who retain nonresident affiliations — occasionally operate as unofficial government envoys who take part in delicate international diplomacy. Others produce definitive works examining Congress, the economy and American society.
  • In the past, Brookings was funded for the most part by no-strings-attached grants from large foundations and individual philanthropists. An endowment, unusual for a Washington think tank, provided steady interest income that supported independent research and insulated scholars from the fundraising side of the organization.  That became problematic. Foundations began to place more restrictions on their grants, part of a challenging new trend facing Brookings and other academic institutions in which donors increasingly specify their expectations as part of what they call “impact philanthropy.”
  • The strategy also led to a lesser reliance on the endowment. Brookings’s annual reports show that, as the organization has grown, income generated by the endowment has declined as a proportion of annual operating revenue — from about one-third a decade ago to 11 percent in 2013.
  • Brookings officials said no single donor provides more than 2.5 percent of the overall budget, limiting the influence that any one funder can have on the institution. Yet a Washington Post review of a few key issue areas found that Brookings’s public seminars, research papers, congressional testimony and op-eds often correspond to the interests of donors.
  • Heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, who have poured money into school initiatives challenging the power of teachers unions, have joined their ideological allies in giving millions of dollars to support Brookings’s education policy center — whose scholars regularly adopt market-oriented stances­ oWhile the bulk of Brookings’s work focuses on broad policy issues, the institution has on occasion produced reports that address specific requests from individual donors, although officials say such work always serves a broader purpose.n key issues.
  • Energy companies have escalated their giving to Brookings in recent years, and its Energy Security Initiative has built a team of experts made up in large part of individuals with oil and utility industry ties.
  • While the bulk of Brookings’s work focuses on broad policy issues, the institution has on occasion produced reports that address specific requests from individual donors, although officials say such work always serves a broader purpose.
  • Atlanta-area boosters seeking to build a rail line between the city and Macon, for instance, agreed to pay Brookings and contributing researchers $200,000 in 2010 for an economic impact study and received a report forecasting large benefits from the project — a study that Brookings officials later said failed to meet the institution’s standards because it was not properly reviewed.
  • Brookings officials say there are many examples in which the think tank has declined offers to conduct research and cases­ in which donors withdrew their money because they disagreed with Brookings’s activities.  In one instance, Brookings lost funding from a longtime Turkish donor who had objected to an event that included a Kurdish official, said David Nassar, Brookings vice president for communications.
  • Corporations made up 25 percent of Brookings’s donors giving at least $50,000 in 2013, up from 7 percent in 2003, the analysis found. The proportion of donors at that level coming from overseas, including foreign governments and trade associations, rose from 6 percent to 22 percent in that period.
  • Researchers mingle with top-level donors at “Brookings in the Hamptons” and private travel seminars, some to overseas locales, including China, India and the Middle East. Lobbyists from Washington’s premier firms show up regularly, with clients in tow to meet with scholars and institution luminaries.
  • From the outside, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, it appears that Brookings no longer behaves like the independent academic institution it once was.  Weingarten, who leads one of the country’s two major teachers unions, said she and her predecessors used to be regularly invited guests at Brookings forums on education policy. But now, with the center’s scholars largely taking stands that run counter to the unions’ views, Weingarten said she is rarely on the Brookings invite list.
  • A number of recent Brookings studies have been singled out for criticism by academics and others, some of whom attribute the research results to Brookings’s association with corporate donors and other wealthy interests.

Okay, now back to the Fight Club video...