Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Economist Talks Think Tanks

The Economist has a new piece on think tanks entitled "What Do Think Tanks Do?"  Here are Think Tank Watch's favorite quotes:

  • Sharp quotes, intriguing facts, and bold new policy proposals are attributed to the mysterious [think] tanks (as is plenty of rubbish).
  • The "think tank" label become popular in the 1950s.
  • Think tanks aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking.  Academics grind out authoritative studies, but at a snail's pace.  Journalists' first drafts of history are speedy but thin.  A good think tank helps the policymaking process by publishing reports that are as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as journalism.  (Bad ones have a knack of doing just the opposite.) 
  • Think tanks flourished in the 20th century for two reasons.  Governments were expanding everywhere, meaning there was lots of demand for policy expertise.  And the arrival of the 24-hour news cycle created an insatiable appetite for informed interviewees.  The same trends are now causing think tanks to take off in developing countries.
  • Yet the world may have reached peak think tank.  UPenn researchers found that in 2014 the number of new think tanks declined for the first time in 30 years.  One reason is that donors nowadays prefer to make project-specific grants, rather than funneling money into mere thinking.  Another is increased competition.  Professional consultancies such as McKinsey publish a fair bit of brainwork, and members of opinionated "advocacy organizations" can make for more compelling interviewees than balanced think tankers.

To cut straight to the chase, the Economist is saying that think tanks are essentially becoming redundant and useless.

We should note that the Economist recently wrote a piece on "worried wonks" at think tanks.