Travel down Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest DC and you’ll find yourself in the heart of an industry that was, when it began, unique to the nation’s capital. The imposing facades of the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies bear little resemblance to the old steel mills of Pittsburgh, but they are factories all the same—producing an endless stream of books, policy papers, reports, analyses, and commentary on everything from health care to taxes to defense.
Washington’s “ideas” economy, based in its think tanks and universities, has made the city an intellectual leader. In 2009, the University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey of the world’s think tanks. It identified 6,305 in 169 countries. At the center of this universe was Washington. Some 393 think tanks were located in the District, more than in any other city in the world; DC is home to about one-fifth of all the think tanks in the United States. Another 149 are in Virginia and Maryland. With budgets ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to $80 million, the ideas industry is a huge driver of the local economy.
And it’s not just a matter of numbers. When the think tanks in the survey were rated for the influence of their work, nine of the top ten in the United States had offices in Washington; the Hoover Institution at Stanford University—staffed with many DC refugees—was the only non-DC think tank to make the top ten.
The latest University of Pennsylvania think tank rankings released in 2015 say that Washington, DC has a whopping 396 think tanks (and Think Tank Watch knows that in an inaccurate figure and there are actually more). The runner-up in Massachusetts, which "only" has 176 think tanks. Combined, Maryland and Virginia, which surround DC, have 155 think tanks.