What comes to mind when you hear the words “think tank”? Do you ever wonder about the individuals responsible for the endless polls and reports released by these organizations?
Think tanks play a considerable role in determining the national agenda and organizing conversations around key issues. Their research is often translated into policy recommendations and sometimes even into law. As such, it is important to ask, how transparent are most think tanks about their funding and hiring practices, and how balanced are their research teams?
According to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the International Relations Program at the University of Pennsylvania, there are 1,823 think tanks in the United States, over half of which are university affiliated. Because of this, law schools and other graduate programs are a primary pipeline to careers in the think tank sector. Lack of diversity is a major problem within many of the nation’s top graduate programs. Dr. Elsie Scott, founding director of the Ron W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University, points out on her blog that only 3 percent of law students at UCLA are black. As private organizations, most think tanks are not required to share the demographic composition of their staff with the public, and few do. But if diversity is an issue at the start of the pipeline, one imagines that this trend continues down the line. One thing that is known about most think tanks, is who sits in the president’s office. The German Marshall Fund of the United States reports that of the top 50 U.S. think tanks, 42 are run by men.
Who provides think tanks with their funding is another question worth asking. The New York Times recently reported that more than a dozen Washington, D.C.-based think tanks received funding from foreign governments in the last few years. Once again, think tanks do not disclose the terms of their agreements with foreign governments. Many question the ethics of withholding this information, especially considering that these same think tanks often make policy recommendations that impact donors’ interests to policy makers who are unaware of the source of their funding.
How does think tanks’ lack of diversity and lack of transparency influence the national conversation and impact the U.S.’s policy agenda? What can be done to change current practices? We invited you to address these questions in a Twitter chat. Dr. Elsie Scott (@elsiescot), Founding Director of Ron W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center, shared her perspective. Karthick Ramakrishnan (@karthickr), Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the University of California, Riverside; Andrew Selee (@SeleeAndrew), Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center; and Sarah Rosen Wartell (@swartell), President of the Urban Institute also weighed in. Read a transcript of the conversation below.