Think tanks are an odd breed, so odd in fact that I often dispense with the term entirely when people ask me what I do. Prayer around the family table, in which invocations for blessings on work are given, usually go something like, "Bless Rob, and whatever it is he does." Around that table, where there are the skills to build a house from top to bottom, the work of think tanks sounds a lot like sitting around, drinking, and taking meetings.
As it turns out, for such a poorly understood group, think tanks are an increasingly powerful cadre of activists and thinkers. The United States of America has one of the most sophisticated and developed think tank cultures, with most western states not far behind (or catching up quickly). Emerging after the first World War, think tanks were designed to serve two functions: policy development and political combat.
They have drifted over the twentieth century, however, according to Tevi Troy in his article "Devaluing the Think Tank." He says think tanks have become more polarized, more specialized and, as in the academy they so love to critique, increasingly of marginal relevance to genuine, innovative policy development. The trend, which might be summed up as "lose an election, gain a think tank" has increased both the number of these institutions, as well as their sensitivity and response to the political needs of the day.
The trend has become so pronounced, they say good think tanks go to Washington to die.
It is, of course, not true that the original think tank model was objective. But it is true that despite serving as places of clear values of one sort of another, these groups once had the ability to still do serious, original, expert research. These places included the Brookings Institution, founded in 1916, and the Council on Foreign Relations, founded in 1921. The CFR was founded as "a program of systematic study by groups of knowledgeable specialists of differing ideological inclinations," intended to help "guide the statecraft of policymakers." Quite a departure from today's partisan battle groups.
For many years think tanks were thought of as "universities without students." Today, they're edging closer to political sales shops without scholars.
Among a representative group of leaders of think tanks founded before 1960, 53% hold Ph.D.s. Among leaders of think tanks founded from 1960-80, 23% have such degrees. And among those founded after 1980, only 13% of their leaders are highly educated.
All of which is fascinating, and all of which casts doubt on whether think tanks are actually, you know, thinking. Door-to-door salesmen are still just salesmen, even if the doors are in the national Parliament.
The point is not to get more people with Ph.D.s. That, clearly, has not solved anything. The point is rather to create the space and the culture within which think tanks might recover the serious reflection for which they were founded. Capitols are a vortex of flash and bang, an attention-deficit environment where pragmatism and media cycles rule. All the incentives of these environments—political, financial, and professional—point to further polarization of think tanks.
To get think tanks thinking again, change the environment. All of us know that before any serious reflection can happen, you need to turn off the television, turn off your phone, and log off Facebook. Serious thinking can't be tweeted. Serious think tanking can't survive the polarized vortex of a capitol and its 21st-century politics.