The Least Compromised Think Tanks?
December 6, 2017 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Think tanks are notoriously dependent on financial support that comes with strings attached: after the Open Markets debacle last year, New America doesn't look so good. So my question: are there any think tanks that truly protect the independence of their staff/fellows' work? Think tanks that have publicly said they support independent thinking, rather than thinking that enhances their financial overlords' corporate or political missions?
posted by Mystical Listicle to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What topics are you interested in? There are think tanks about all kinds of things.
Anyway, the Brookings Institution seems to fit your requirements, in that they clearly say they stand for independent research etc. Wikipedia coverage places them as rather squarely independent, non-profit and non-partisan, citing a UCLA research study, for what that's worth. I see they are implicated in your Economist link, but it's not clear to me that they are guilty of anything other than accepting donations.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:40 PM on December 6, 2017

Oof, that's a really good question that I could write a book about. I don't think there are any think tanks that are completely untouched by financial concerns. (e.g. even the venerable Brookings has some more academically-aligned departments and some departments that are more, uh, "entrepreneurial" in their funding)

Overall there is a lot of great stuff being published and people are doing some very good thinking about policies. Not many places (at least from the center-right over to the left, in my opinion) are putting out stuff that is wrong or even willfully misleading. The issue is more that the debate gets shaped by two big forces: money, and Paul Krugman's Very Serious People impulse. The former seems obvious but is a bit more subtle than you might think, because it ends up shaping things like subject priorities more than actual positions on things. The latter is, basically, the fact that you actually want to make a policy difference and you have to take the existing power structure and beliefs of people on the Hill and in the administration relatively seriously if you want to have any shot at the table.

Despite these two concerns people in think tanks often DO have a lot of leeway to advocate for policies that they genuinely believe in, and people do do some great research that is relevant in ways that academic stuff rarely is.

To more directly answer your question, if you want academic rigor look for places that have people from or in and out of academia, and whether they are producing much wonky/technical output. Check out if a place discloses its donors, and who sits on its board. Places like Pew, the Congressional Research Service (which doesn't actually publish its reports but you can often find them online), and a few others are super non-partisan to the point of neutering their subject areas significantly. The "gadfly" types on the right and the left are often bankrolled by specific interests and are freer to speak what they see as truth to power; the closer you get to the center the more you are going to get into 'practical' policy commentary that has real constituencies.

A final point just about think tank rhetoric: few people are saying anything wrong on its face. It's what they are not saying that's important--the counter-arguments they're ignoring, the statistic they are forgetting to account for, etc...
posted by ropeladder at 4:47 PM on December 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Matt Bruenig has started the – pretty left – People's Policy Project which has this to say about themselves:
People's Policy Project is supported by over 1,700 small donors pledging $5 to $15 per month. This funding source allows us to do our work without being compromised by the corporate money other think tanks rely on.

People’s Policy Project (3P) is a think tank founded in 2017. The primary mission of 3P is to publish ideas and analysis that assist in the development of an economic system that serves the many, not the few.
posted by nsillik at 4:49 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anyway, the Brookings Institution seems to fit your requirements, in that they clearly say they stand for independent research etc.

Strongly disagreed.

The New York Times has written a devastating exposé of donor influence at Brookings. They can say what they want about valuing independence but actions are more important.
posted by grobstein at 7:59 PM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Used to work at the Pew Charitable Trusts (not the Pew Research Center) and have respect for both organizations. I can’t speak from experience re: PRC but PCT is aggressively nonpartisan. Can elaborate if you DM me. Sadly I concur with the description of Brookings as not so independent. Perhaps the Urban Institute? Mathematica Policy Research is not as well known but it’s employee owned which I find encouraging regarding their ability to act independently.
posted by kat518 at 8:43 PM on December 6, 2017

The Institute for Policy Studies

IPS is a progressive think tank dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society. In partnership with dynamic social movements, we turn transformative policy ideas into action.

The Institute for Policy Studies is a 501(c)(3) organization. Our employer identification number is 52-0788947.

To ensure our ability to provide independent research and analysis, we do not accept any donations from governments. Our work is sustained by foundations and individuals. We also accept employee-directed contributions and donor-matching funds.

We are committed to holding ourselves to the highest standards of transparency and accountability. To that end, we are making available to you the Institute’s financial information for the past five years, as well as our most recently published Annual Report.

posted by little eiffel at 8:49 PM on December 6, 2017

Former think-tanker here, so let me chime in on Brookings. Ropeladder has it exactly right: "...even the venerable Brookings has some more academically-aligned departments and some departments that are more, uh, "entrepreneurial" in their funding." The NYT expose linked above is damning, but not of the entire organization. If you want an off-the-record summary of which Brookings programs are guilty of what, let me know.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:50 AM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

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