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.