When Bruce Bartlett eulogized think tanks in his Forbes column in April, I thought about how that was antithetical to the growing numbers of think tanks over the last 20 years and certainly at odds with the mass amounts of materials produced by think tanks each year.
It quickly became apparent that Bartlett lamented the role think tanks have taken on, so I decided to ask six think tanks a simple question: What is a think tank?
And here is what they had to say...
A think tank is most accurately described as a not-for-profit policy-oriented research center.
A think tank is a place that nurtures and assembles multiple scholars/writers who have or will develop independent reputations for saying novel, compelling or authoritative things across multiple areas of public concern.
A “think tank” – or at least, a think tank in Washington D.C., is generally a public policy research institution. It is a home for scholars, an incubator for ideas, a place to consider, to explicate and to drive better policies for our government in our nation’s best interests. At least, that is the American Enterprise Institute.
“Think tank” is a broad term, sweeping up everything from quasi-academic institutions like Brookings to politically engaged organizations like Third Way and the Center for American Progress on the left and the Heritage Foundation on the right. The scholarly think tanks are essentially universities without students – they have senior academics producing scholarly materials. The more action-oriented places do products that are intended to have an impact on actual legislative and political debates.
A think-tank can be many things – but the best think tanks are ones that don’t just think. They are places where the solutions to America’s challenges are seen through the eyes of the people facing those challenges. They are places where making the idea real is just as important as having the idea in the first place. They are places that don’t assume they have all the answers – and listen to the voices and ideas of regular people in crafting strong, workable solutions.
Think tanks come in all shapes and sizes, from an elite handful of national or global brand name institutions, with hundreds of scholars and staff, multimillion dollar endowments, and substantial alumni networks in government, to a profusion of much smaller, usually single issue- or region-oriented groups. Some are chartered and funded by government, while others are affiliated with colleges and universities, and still others are entirely private and independent. The stated missions of these institutions are as varied as their physiognomy, however most share a basic aim to produce expert analysis of public policy issues that is relevant for--and therefore likely to influence--those who make policy decisions in government.
Come back tomorrow when these same think tankers answer the question: What do think tanks do? Check it out here.