I wrote recently in The Guardian about what I perceive to be a crisis in the political think-tanks. This crisis is ostensibly brought on by two factors, the first is the inevitable (but slow) tidal drift of ideology and the second is economic (bluntly, funding).
In a series of upcoming blogs I want to explore the effects of this crisis a little more deeply and in a way that, I hope, points to what I believe is the real crisis with think-tanks in the UK. They are going in individual focus on quality, independence, transparency and then summarise some ideas for what might be done to solve the problem.
It is worth prefixing this commentary by saying clearly that it is not based on a principle objection to the concept of the think-tank (which would be rather hypocritical), rather, the exact opposite. I believe that an effectively functioning independent think-tank space is a vital pre-requisite to any strong democracy.
But first, I’m going to spend a moment contemplating a criticism of think-tanks made by some commenters on my Guardian article; that they are homes for ‘failed academics’. Clearly such a comment is inane but it’s worthy of clarification because it points to a general failure in this country to properly grasp the range of research that we both need and do. Think-tank research must not replicate academic research, it is quite different. In my view it is actually a lot more valuable in the policy area. But that does not mean it can lack standards, rigour and transparency. Far too much academic research acts as an analysis of record. It more often than not fails to give us any pointers as to what we should do next other than to discuss what happened before. This is useful but we need good quality applied research focussed on developing strong recommendations for evidence-based action. One is not better (or worse) than the other.