The problem with think-tanks: Independence

I’ve talked about the quality of the work produced, I now want to focus on the question of how independent a think-tank is – or isn’t (either in reality or perception). I don’t just mean the blatant ideological instrument of some lobbying group or other that we regularly see in the US and increasingly are appearing in the UK.

Where this is the case it’s usually obvious and their work can safely be dismissed by all (including journalists looking to spice up a story with an extreme position and who should know better).

I have no issue with a level of subjectivity in research, indeed I’ve written quite extensively in the past about the impossibility of undertaking applied research without acknowledging some level of personal and subjective bias.

Nor is this a major issue so long as one is clear about the bias and disclose it upfront. And most importantly, the researcher must be receptive to data and ideas that will change their opinion. When all you are doing is producing ‘research’ to back up an ideological belief it is not rigorous and not worth the paper it is written on.

This is an extreme though. There are longer shadows at play, all more difficult to spot. Some are more problematic than others but all should be duly acknowledged if the research is to have any credibility.

The first of these is a party or ideological bias, not to the same degree as being a rubber-stamp for ideology but in so much as it might hinder you coming to the ‘wrong conclusion’. This can be dealt with if it is declared and if the think-tank is rigorously managing its processes. Being open and transparent lets the reader decide too.

The third problem is perhaps more insidious and dangerous because it’s about direct funding (you could rightly argue the latter point is ultimately about indirect funding). Much research is now directly funded; by government departments, through commercial sponsorship, donations or from trusts.

How much does the need to maintain a funding stream impact on one’s ability to be totally honest in research? I can certainly say from my own experience that I have felt pressured to dilute findings that might be seen to be overly critical of a funder. I can also say that I never felt that pressure from the funder, rather it was a naïve assumption internally that being bland was a safer path to success than standing up for what your research actually said.

If the data supports the argument, then it is fair game to make the point and the funder must accept it: Caveat emptor. And if they don’t, more fool them!

About Andy Williamson

Dr Andy Williamson is a Digital Strategist and commentator. His work focuses on digital engagement, e-campaigning and the strategic use of social media. A former advisor to the New Zealand Government, his work influences digital policy and practice in a number of continents, including the UK.
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