Dark year proves bright for think tanks

The 11th year of Prospect’s Think Tank Awards showed that plunging markets and revolution have prompted radical new thinking
October 19, 2011
Jonathan Portes (right), director of NIESR, receives our traditional honour of the “tank top for the top tank of the year” from Vince Cable

We live in extraordinary times. The past year has been one of drama: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan in March; the Arab uprisings; the killing of Osama bin Laden; phone hacking; swings of 400 points in the FTSE index; the eurozone crisis.

Those events provided rich material for the candidates for Prospect’s 11th Think Tank Awards. So did the fierce, continuing debate about the age of austerity: where cuts should fall, how to stimulate growth, how big the public sector should be, and how to reshape it. Think tanks have taken on some of the biggest intellectual challenges for years.

Prospect set up these awards to recognise those who inject public debate with vital new ideas. We have two main criteria: originality, and influence on that debate or on government policy.

We had a record number of entries and nominations this year, even before counting those for the new category of International Think Tank of the Year.

The judges

Bronwen Maddox, the editor of Prospect, chaired the panel of judges, which included Baroness Vadera of Holland Park, adviser to governments, companies and funds, and former minister; Nader Mousavizadeh, chief executive of Oxford Analytica, previously special assistant to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; James Crabtree, Financial Times comment editor; James Elwes, deputy editor of Prospect and former editor of Financial World; and Andy Davis, associate editor of Prospect, and former editor of FT Weekend.

Think tank of the year

The shortlist of five included the Resolution Foundation, founded in 2005, which has made a hugely impressive start under Gavin Kelly’s “very intelligent and clear” directorship, producing original and important papers on the “squeezed middle,” the minimum wage, and social mobility. Judges complimented the Institute for Fiscal Studies, always a towering presence in the British think tank landscape, for the “Mirrlees Review” on making tax fairer in the 21st century, but felt it had not been the organisation’s best year.

The panel gave a special note to Policy Exchange for strength across a broad range: housing, education, crime and energy. It also has excellent access to policymakers and a lively events schedule.

The runner up for Prospect think tank of the year award was The King’s Fund, the large health policy research unit. It was forthright in claiming a direct influence on public policy—a claim with which the judges at least partly concurred. In its submission, the King’s Fund noted that: “Our work helped prompt a number of significant shifts in government policy [on NHS reform] and the decision to undertake the listening exercise during the ‘pause’ in the bill’s passage through parliament.” The judges felt that most credit for the government’s shift should, properly, go to the Liberal Democrats for their threat of rebellion, but agreed that the King’s Fund had pressed its views home in a highly effective manner.

However, the economic crisis dominated British and global political debate in 2011. The submission that stood out was from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The British government has decided that it should best deal with the country’s budget deficit and debt by a period of fiscal austerity. NIESR has been outstanding in challenging this strategy; as one judge put it, in “doing Ed Balls’ job a bit better than Ed Balls.” It has argued that “the pace of fiscal consolidation was too fast,” and that the cuts have checked Britain’s growth by too much.

Not all the judges agreed with NIESR’s analysis or conclusions. But they felt that the institute’s output was always worth close attention. Much of that was due to its director Jonathan Portes, who was appointed in February and who has reinvigorated the institute. For its scrutiny of the government’s economic strategy, it was felt that NIESR was the rightful winner of the 2011 award for think tank of the year.

UK think tank dealing with international affairs

The Arab Spring and the euro crisis have dominated international themes this year. Both appear to have presented think tanks with difficulties. On the euro, some of the economic think tanks performed better than many of the specialist foreign affairs houses, although the panel gave special mention to the Centre for European Reform.

Analysis of the Arab Spring presented the judges with their greatest discomfort. It was felt that none of the foreign affairs think tanks based in Britain had a particularly good claim to prescience. Nor did they obviously have enough analysts of a high enough stature who were well placed to comment in detail about the likely course of events. Roundtables were often excellent, but much of the research lacked that clinching quality of being ahead of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or capable of challenging it. Foreign affairs houses based in London are also dogged by the question of how to advise the world from a smallish country: can anything be usefully said that does not amount to an exhortation to either the US or Nato to “do something”? Therefore the award, which was shared, was given for work other than coverage of the Arab uprising.

The judges saw the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) as good at attracting high-level speakers, but thought the institute’s output overall only “solid.” However, two parts of its work stood out as excellent. The first was on the British government’s strategic defence review, on which it can claim some influence. The second was its work in China, where it has, in its own words, opened up a “dialogue with the national security establishment.” Earlier this year, the institute met senior members of the Chinese Communist party for discussions at the Chinese Institute for International and Strategic Studies; the delegation was led by Sir John Scarlett, the former head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6,) now a senior fellow at RUSI.

The award is shared with Chatham House, by far the larger of the two organisations. Its roundtable discussions were thought especially strong; one judge commented that Chatham House did its “what-governments-should-do” work most effectively in that format. The judges also noted, with approval, that the purpose of Chatham House’s research has become increasing clearly focused; the tone is now firmly that of advising governments—even when that advice has not been requested. It has done exceptional work particularly on Yemen, where its roundtables and commentary have clearly led the debate.

Publication of the year

Chatham House also received an honourable mention for its reportThe Shale Gas Revolution: Hype and Reality,” by Paul Stevens. The report, rightly picking on a “game-changer” in resources, set out a future dominated by cheap gas.

The panel also gave special mention to the “Mirrlees Review” by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS.) The review “set out to identify the characteristics of a good tax system for the 21st century”; the judges considered that it had succeeded. Sir John Vickers, of the Vickers report on banking, also credited the review with providing “an authoritative and definitive analysis of the architecture of taxation that is at once rational, grounded in rich economic evidence, and practicable in terms of law and policy.”

But the winner in this category was Reform, a well-connected think tank whose report “Every Teacher Matters” was a “worthy victor,” according to one judge. The report stressed that the regulation of teaching should be relaxed and that government must cede more powers to schools—points at least partly represented in the government’s schools white paper.

The judges found the report cogent and radical, challenging the government as well as offering new ideas.

One to watch

This category triggered the fiercest debate among the judges, in the competition between established think tanks undergoing a renaissance, and the new kids on the block. One judge complimented the Institute for Public Policy Research as “an old horse that is looking newly frisky,” and the panel gave it special mention. The judges also heaped praise on The Resolution Foundation under the directorship of Gavin Kelly, and gave it special mention. Another institution that came in for note was 2020health, a small house run by Julia Manning, which produced an interesting paper on telehealth.

Runner up was the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), partly for its report “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes,” which it described as “the comprehensive spending review that never was.” The IEA, founded in 1955 and a consistent advocate of free markets, is the original British tank. The judges were pleased to see it revitalised by director general Mark Littlewood.

But the winner this year was the Media Standards Trust (MST). Established in 2006 to scrutinise standards in media, the MST made the most of this year. It launched its “Hacked Off” campaign, pressing for an inquiry into phone hacking.

The trust also runs Churnalism.com, a service that aims to help the public check whether journalists have churned out press releases. In one judge’s view “this doesn’t really work, but is an excellent idea all the same.” There was controversy this year when the Trust’s highly-respected Orwell prize for political writing was returned by its 2008 winner after allegations of plagiarism. The judges also wanted MST in the future to show more depth in research, and to move more firmly into the think tank zone, as well as being strong in campaigning. However, this cannot obscure that fact that 2011 was a big year for the MST and it made the most of the opportunity.

Best think tank outside the UK

This prize was a new addition for 2011, a year in which the true dimensions of the challenge facing the world economy became clear. It was also the year for economics think tanks to shine.

Among many voices in an energetic worldwide debate, none spoke with more insight and authority than the Peterson Institute for International Economics. This Washington-based organisation brings together a large circle of internationally recognised fellows, among them Adam Posen, a member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, and Carmen Reinhart, co-author with Kenneth Rogoff of This Time Is Different, probably the most lauded book on the financial crisis and its historical context.

This year the Peterson Institute produced a steady stream of striking and influential research, including standout work on China and the eurozone debt crisis. The judges were unanimous that it deserved the award. However, they also agreed that they had been impressed with the work of Bruegel, the Brussels-based think tank, which was named runner-up for publishing research at the highest level on the eurozone crisis.

The Prospect Think Tank Awards were supported by Shell