The problem with think-tanks: Quality

My earlier discussion on the value of and necessity for different types of research brings me to the first problem that the current think-tank situation creates; quality. In academia there is a considerable amount of valueless, low quality research and subsequent publication produced simply because one has too; publish or perish, as they say.

Don’t for one minute believe that peer-review systems protect us from this, they don’t. Nor is academic research an open or level playing field. Journals are largely closed shops, tightly controlled, inaccessible to most.So, one would hope that an environment based on quality of thought not quantity of output would be different. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The nature of many think-tanks at the moment means that work agendas are driven by funding rather than the need (or desire) for good quality research.

Funding also restricts the quality of staff available. Critical thinking is becoming critically endangered.

I have a background in commercial consultancy. I know how the big firm model works; Send in the partners to pitch then, on day one, a two-days-in-the-job graduate walks in the door with a manual under their arm.

Are think-tanks any different? In a word… No. They are over-reliant on low-cost junior staff to do a lot of the heavy lifting. This means either junior researchers or, more often than not, interns. Think-tanks are staffed by a sea of young, eager researchers all keen to make careers in government and politics.

They are undoubtedly smart – the system is so competitive that even for short internships you have the pick of the crop. However, these junior researchers lack the most important element of critical thinking: experience.

They know a lot of theory but they have zero experience in how to apply it (and for a perfect example of this, I only had to look at a random recent ‘think-tank’ article on the Guardian website). They have no idea how to translate thought into action because they have never worked in or been a stakeholder in any of the systems or policy areas they are working on.

They also tend to have limited understanding of research methods and therefore underestimate the importance of good research design.

Of course, the reality is not quite as bad as I make it sound. There are more senior staff overseeing this work (aren’t there?). But to recognise that the intellectual power-base of many a think tank is in fact this year’s harvest of new grads on three month rotations should make anyone question the applicability of their findings a little more closely.

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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2 Responses to The problem with think-tanks: Quality

  1. Rogerlwhite says:

    Andy – I don’t disagree with the idea that quality is a problem but I don’t think it’s necessarily THE problem with think tanks.  I think the big issue is what you might call undeclared partisanship.  Most of them start with a fundamental set of beliefs rooted in a political or social point of view.  They then seek facts that support what they already believe in.  This is not research in an academic sense with a null hypothesis and a rigorous methodology to test it.  It’s fishing around to justify what they want to achieve.  That’s not to say they don’t sometimes come up with good ideas but that’s another matter.

    If people think my characterisation of “undeclared partisanship” is unfair just check out the names political think tanks use. 

    By and large they give no clue whatsoever to the political persuasion of those involved, while use of words like “institute”, “policy” and “research” imply a higher purpose.  Even their visions are sometimes bland enough to encompass anything from mainstream right through the centre to mainstream left.  But check who’s working for them and who’s on their board and then you know why they’re proposing what they are.

  2. A cynic’s guide to think-tanks
    “A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps the watch” is a popular saying among people who aren’t fond of consultants. Advertising executive Carl Ally (1924-1999) was credited with the saying by 1965. Robert Townsend further popularized the saying in his book Up the Organization (1970).
    Think-tanks are a bit like a collective for consultants who claim to be doing it for the public benefit whilst still getting paid over the odds. Whilst popular during the cold war, I suspect some of the recent growth of them can be identified if someone could count the number of think tanks appearing during the Blair government, or even towards the end of the previous one. An many have identified the same era saw a profound growth in the number of consultants working in government, a number of whom went on to start or work for think-tanks.
    What are think-tanks for? I presume to give the harassed and over-worked a rounded opinion of what the current socio-political problems are, and how they might be dealt with by whoever is paying the piper/think-tank. But, as in the piper/consultant analogy, if you are paying, you also might be expecting to hear the tunes you want, otherwise, you won’t pay again. So, how prepared are you to ask for bias-free sounds from your think-tank? In that case why are there right-wing think-tanks, left-wing think-tanks and centre think-tanks, if the thoughts are unhindered and not marshalled for the listening audience?
    As a busy professional I’m inundated by surveys. Some of whom go on to try and sell my hard-earned knowledge back to me. I take part in meetings attempting to extract and share best practice amongst colleagues, where the consultants in the audience go on to recycle to me as their hard-thought theories.

    Where does a think-tank improve on this (apart frm partisanship)?

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