May 2, 2017


On Think Tanks research agenda

A research agenda on think tanks

The On Think Tanks research agenda outlines the themes, questions and lines of inquire that, we believe, require further study. It has been informed by discussions with representatives of international donors, academics who study think tanks, as well as current and former think tank staff. It has been developed in collaboration with members of the team, as well as our partners. We review it annually at the On Think Tanks Conference + to reflect new challenges and questions as they arise.

The research landscape today

Think tanks are now a well-established topic of scholarly investigation+. Research about think tanks is concerned with: defining them, the ideas they produce and propagate, and their relation to the political sphere. The existing research on think tanks broadly falls into one of the following specialisms:

  1. Historical studies of a particular polity’s think tank tradition  +– but this has usually focused on developed countries like the USA, UK, and countries in Western Europe.
  2. Attempts to define and classify these diverse organisations+.
  3. Understanding a think tank’s role and impact on party politics and their role propagating the ideology of a certain clique within a party.
  4. Studies of think tanks in specific policy domains or within policy debates.
  5. The potential for think tanks to enable knowledge brokerage and ‘rational’ policy making.
  6. Academics within the tradition of power structure research +.  and investigative social science have focused on how certain think tanks act as ideological shock troops and sock puppets or cooperate stooges across a number of policy domains.
  7. New, specifically sociological, research has taken an interest in the ideas created by think tanks. This research also focuses on think tank researchers as representing a distinct mode of intellectual engagement and what the rise of these organisations might mean for the role of critical academic social science in the public sphere.

Our research priorities

Reflecting on the established literature, we have identified the following priorities:

1. Expand and deepen current think tank research

The wider research is very important and insightful but it should broaden its scope. Also, researchers in this field should seek to engage with the wider think tank community rather than single think tank studies.

The following are examples of issues of interest:

  • The role of gender in think tanks, research and evidence based policy needs to be studied. In particular, how:  the structure of think tanks affects the careers of men and women differently; how the way that research is conducted may, inadvertently, widen the gender gap +; the role (and struggles) of female think tank leaders etc.
  • Studies about the impact of think tanks and the mapping of national traditions with a focus on the developing world and more authoritarian polities.
  • Analysis of the roles that think tanks play in various sectors. For example, how are they engaging with the sustainable development goals, education policy, foreign policy, security policy, etc.

On Think tanks has developed an Open Think Tank Directory,  a collaborative project that aims to collect and capture a rich set of information about think tanks from all around the world to overcome the shortage of publicly available information on them. Our database currently comprises nearly 2700 (so far) think tanks and related organizations from around the globe +. It includes not only names and websites, but a wide range of information about the organizations it features, including their description, topics they focus on, contact details, founder, current leader, staff number, gender breakdown, social media profiles, and publication numbers among others. The database can be freely downloaded and we are eager to see it used to expand and deepen think tank research.

2. Think tanks in a time of populism and evidence scepticism

Reflecting the shifting international political landscape, there are urgent questions regarding how think tanks work and seek to influence within a more hostile political environment (typified by the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the growing populism in Europe). Research should investigate how:

  • Governments, political parties, political leaders and other powerful actors use the new populism to delegitimise think tanks (and other institutions) which seek to influence and encourage open political debate.
  • Think tanks respond towards scepticism of evidence and whether this favour the more openly ideological and advocacy focused think tanks over the more academic and technocratic ones.

3. Sustainability and change

Interest in think tank research should also pay attention to how and why think tanks change and evolve over time.  And to the new forms of organisation, funding models and efforts made to ensure their sustainability (and that of the policy research community as a whole).

Questions could consider:

  • How may think tanks in developing countries mobilise new funders and supporters, public and private, to reduce their dependence on foreign aid; and how they might have to adapt their business models and internal practices to do so.
  • Since new funders bring new challenges, how may think tanks protect their integrity and reputation as they explore new funding sources and deal with stronger interests? What approaches, systems and tools are there for them to use?
  • What business models have emerged across the world (and contexts) to address the various challenges think tanks face (e.g. funding, staffing, the cost of research, influence, political uncertainty, etc.), and how do think tanks operate in these varied institutional arrangements.
  • Why do think tanks cease to function? What factors (e.g. funding, governance, political context) give way to a think tank closing its operations, and what does this process entail.
  • Evolution of a think tank. How do generational changes take place, and how is the transfer of power enacted?

4. Quality and credibility

Researchers should engage with issues of research practice within think tanks and especially issues of research quality.  And beyond research quality, think tank scholars should also concentrate on the credibility of think tanks (as individual organisations and as a sector). Some suggestions include:

  • Studies to elucidate the manner in which ideas are produced and how interests (be they political, academic, corporate, and so on) are negotiated in the process of research.
  • How research from a think tank becomes valued and how it is validated (both within an organisation and outside), how perceptions of rigor/credibility differ within a think tank ecology.
  • How do partisan think tanks engage with their audiences? Are there any differences in ideologies? Does partisanship have any effect on the think tank´s credibility, policy engagement, or any other factor?
  • What it the role of transparency + in generating trust?

5. Innovative methodology and towards and anthropology of think tanks

Think tank research should also consider new types of studies and methods+, and explore for example:

  • The use of embedded participant observations and ethnographic work.
  • What can alternative metrics offer to further understand the impact of think tanks

There is also value in understanding the minutia of life within policy research organisations, and the cultures which these facilitate and sustain. Some suggestion in this line include:

  • Which actors are essential to a think tank? What strategies do think tanks use to engage with government? How and why do they vary between think tanks?
  • How do think tanks work together (networks, coalitions, collaborations)? What is the role of second level organisations (e.g. think tank consortiums)?
  • What are the functions and roles of think tanks beyond research?
  • How does innovation happen in a think tank? What strategies are used to foster it? How are new ideas implemented?
  • Think tank’s leaders deal with a diversity of issues: budgetary decisions, communicational ones; organisational engineering etc. What leadership styles work best for (different types of think tanks)? How do leaders support or constrain growth, change or innovation? Are there any gender differences in leadership roles and styles?

Finally, we remain interested in addressing On Think Tanks’ core themes: funding and supporting think tanks, communications and impact, governance and management, and understanding think tanks.

Join the effort

On Think Tanks, in partnership with the University of Bath and Universidad del Pacífico,  has launched the Working Paper Series to give researchers on think tanks and evidence based policy a chance to publish their ideas and reach a broader academic and practitioner audience. We are calling on researchers to submit papers addressing these (or other) issues.

Our support includes peer review, editing, publication and dissemination.

If you would like to know more about On Think Tanks’ research activities, please contact Andrea Baertl at