⚒️🌾 Pinko and the Brain 🧠
Think tanks sit at an ugly juncture between quasi-academia and publishing
Media coverage of the role think tanks in play in Britain typically oscillates from conspiratorial criticism of ‘malign influence’ from ‘shadowy funding’ — to breathless, uncritical articles on the findings of a new report, by writers relieved that a story that confirms their worldview has basically been penned for them. Meanwhile, the average Briton is none the wiser. Only half of us are even aware of what think tanks are and what they do, according to a poll commissioned by communications consultancy, Cast From Clay.
So what is a think tank? For such a simple question, the answer is surprisingly complex. At a surface level, think tanks blend together research and communications expertise with the aim of influencing and shaping public debate, and opposition — or even better — government policy. They typically seek to achieve this by commissioning, publishing and then promoting research, and by fielding their employees to discuss policy with political and business leaders, or on debate panels and media rounds to comment on their areas of expertise and opinion.
But think tanks are better thought of as a spectrum of organisations, starting at larger, clearly defined and research-led think tanks, which often prefer to be known as more august and grandiose-sounding ‘policy institutes,’ like the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Government. At the other end of the spectrum are often smaller outfits, that typically have more of a nakedly political flavouring — with less of an emphasis on rigorous, postgraduate-level, academic analysis, and more of a focus on researching how to win an argument on political terms alone. There is a heavily blurred line between some think tanks and straightforward political campaigning organisations.
At their best, think tanks offer a highly valuable contribution to public debate, giving politicians with limited time valuable research insight into problem policy areas, and working to develop and refine innovative and clever solutions that might be politically feasible. Simply identifying a problem exists — house prices and rents are too high — does not mean that even glaringly obvious policy solutions — building more houses — are immediately politically feasible, owing to the unequal distribution of power and motivations in stakeholder groups. This is where think tanks are essential — working out how to square even the most stubborn political circles.
Think tanks are important for the quality of debate in public life, too. Following the presentation of a government budget to the House of Commons, various think tanks can offer a near-immediate informed and critical analysis of the political and fiscal outcomes of the Chancellor’s words — looking for a realist’s angle on the arguments made from the despatch box. Are the government’s arguments grounded? Do they stand up to scrutiny?
As policy experts, think tankers can give journalists and political laymen a head start in understanding the political, social and economic outcomes of complex announcements in real time, picking the loose threads in a flawed narrative. They are even able to say the ‘unsayable,’ unbound by the ties of party political collective responsibility. All the better to provoke a fiery TV debate that gets shared on social media, advancing the aims and views of the institute they represent.
Think tanks also play a role in lifting dry policy questions off the page by finding ways to communicate a case for change in unique, compelling, and easy to understand ways, like the Adam Smith Institute’s simple but effective Tax Freedom Day. By transforming an average tax to income ratio into a specific date on which the average Briton finally switches from funding the exchequer’s coffers, to contributing to their own finances — last year calculated to be the 8th June — tax policy instantly becomes much more ‘human’ and accessible to political outsiders, widening stakeholder engagement beyond political obsessives.
But at their worst, think tanks offer low quality, partisan and excessively ideological nonsense — masquerading as dispassionate, objective research — ready to be quoted by politically aligned commentators grunting their prejudices on Gammon FM, or their mirror images, who value sounding right-on and feelings above observable, measurable and long-established economic relationships.
Now armed with the perfect massaged statistic to quote to viewers, the commentator can coast on a superficially plausible, hard to falsify sentiment that is not based in impartial evidence and analysis. When does demographically representative and unbiased polling questions, and rigorous statistical analysis make way to pure lobbying by special interest groups looking to influence industry and government? It is difficult to diverge from pre-drawn ideological red lines set by your institution’s mission and history, even if the data analysis demands it.
Think tanks sit at an ugly juncture between quasi-academia and publishing. Their role is not to be purely cerebral and scholarly — they must also produce newsworthy research of proven influence in media and government to maintain their income stream. No matter how much think tank chiefs might protest and proclaim their independence, this necessarily creates a power incentive not to be academically sound, but to be convincing and serve research that complements the ideological flavours of the day.
Much is made of limited think tank funding transparency and the idea that donors can push research outcomes in their chosen direction. The reality is probably more mundane — with so many think tanks of varying ideologies to choose from, all a donor needs to do is pick a pre-aligned think tank and mention a policy area that interests them in passing over the lunch (that they’re paying for). It’s not like a hypothetical shadowy figure would need much cash — in relative terms — to do it either.
One of the largest think tanks with some of the most impressive research, the Resolution Foundation, gets by on only £3m a year. As the Economist put it, ‘A benevolent millionaire could fund almost all of Britain’s biggest political think-tanks and have change left from £20m.’ No wonder the average salary in British think tanks — mostly based in London — is only £39,000. This is well below the London average, with graduates in the smaller outfits on considerably less than that — far behind equivalent averages in London consulting, financial services and law.
This compares unfavourably with equivalent organisations in the United States. The Brookings Institution for example, one of the largest, most prestigious, and most influential think tanks in America, pays an average salary of $92,000, or £76,500 — nearly double. The libertarian-aligned Cato Institute pays even more, with an average salary of $99,500. The Pew Research Centre? A cool average salary of $131,500. Even adjusting for the fact that Britain has fallen far behind the United States and is becoming a relatively poorer country, our think tank salaries, particularly at the graduate end, are pitiful.
One of the advantages of US-style, tax-incentivised philanthropy is the ability for think tanks to afford greater editorial independence. Many American policy institutes literally have the word ‘endowment’ in their organisational title. Sitting on huge piles of trust cash, they are perhaps better able to avoid the flawed incentive structures of hand-to-mouth research-donation cycles. The quantity of money helps too, enabling greater employment competition for higher-calibre graduates from elite universities. With higher salaries comes an offer more equal to major financial services and consulting firms, which would otherwise hoover up all the STEM postgrads able to do high-end statistical analyses.
That’s not to say that all academic-quality analysis has to be number crunching wonkery — some of the best think tank research is necessarily qualitative, particularly regarding foreign affairs. Foreign policy cannot be described like a pack of Top Trumps in numbers alone. An accurate, qualitative description of the politics, motivations and relative power of groups and individuals is far more valuable.
But when British political outcomes have fallen so far behind peer nation outcomes, high-quality political analysis that goes beyond Oxbridge PPE debating society politics is essential. Winning an argument because you’ve noticed the opponent has committed ignoratio elenchi, or recalling the detail of the classics with greater clarity means little when most of the political class doesn’t have a clue what a regression analysis is in a modern economy and state described and run by data. Dominic Cummings was on to something when he called for more ‘data scientists, project managers, policy experts [and] assorted weirdos’ in politics.
Armed with a better understanding of data and the most effective levers for implementing policy, we could build a better Britain. We could have greater certainty over which policies can have a measurable, positive impact. All we would need is a nice, politically interested billionaire to come along and donate a large, US-scale endowment towards some underfunded British think tanks. Rishi Sunak, what say you?
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