Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Is Manipulation of Data Common at Think Tanks?

Dr. Donald Abelson, an expert on think tanks and author of the book "Do Think Tanks Matter?," was just interviewed by Till Bruckner, a researcher who manages advocacy for Transparify - an initiative promoting greater financial disclosure by think tanks.  [Transparify is funded by Open Society Foundations, a grant-making network founded by liberal billionaire George Soros.]  Here are our favorite questions and answers:

Q:  An article in the New York Times on foreign funding for think tanks caused quite a stir in the United States when it came out in late 2014. What reactions did you encounter as a researcher on the ground at the time?

A:  The impact on the think tanks scene has been significant. The think tanks I regularly contact are now being very cautious about who they speak to, and what information they release, especially in relation to the funding they receive from abroad.

Q:  Many think tanks openly regard advocacy as a core function. Is that a bad thing?

A:  People often think that if a think tank engages in advocacy, its work is tainted. That makes very little sense to me. When hospitals advocate for more beds, everyone thinks that is fine, but when advocacy is associated with think tanks, the assumption is often that they are trying to advance institutional interests over public interests.  Think tanks over time have become highly sophisticated, highly savvy, and employing well orchestrated strategies for shaping public policy is part of that. If advocacy compromises research quality, that needs to discussed. But the reality is that both Brookings and Heritage do similar things. The real question is, what is the quality of their work?

Q:  Between donor demands and dedicated campaigning arms, how can think tanks safeguard their intellectual integrity?

A:  Think tanks encounter considerable pressure in maintaining their intellectual independence, especially when millions of dollars are on the line. Some former think tankers with whom I corresponded for my book told me that they were often asked to manipulate data, or massage their findings to appease donors supporting their research. I have no doubt that this happens more often than we think. Although I cannot name the institutions that former think tank staff commented on, I am aware of this growing problem.

Q: You sound very negative. Do think tanks no longer have a positive contribution to make?

A:  If you look at the direction think tanks are taking in the United States, Canada and Britain, the trend is towards greater advocacy, not pure or applied research. They are looking to position themselves strategically in the market of ideas. By necessity, it's going to taint their findings.  Having said that, think tanks still perform an important function by increasing awareness around a host of domestic and foreign policy issues. They force us to think.

The full interview, in the Huffington Post, can be read here.  More on Donald Abelson, a professor of political science in Canada, can be found here.

Dr. Abelson's current projects include two forthcoming books: Northern Exposure: Revealing the Canadian Think Tank Landscape, and Think Tanks, Foreign Policy, and Geopolitics: Pathways of Influence.