Think Tank Awards 2016: the winners
Prospect’s 16th annual awards recognised groups working to solve the great policy questions of this extraordinary year
It is hard to remember a year like it. Brexit, the collapse of the David Cameron’s government and now the election of Donald Trump have sent the political world into a spin. By any measure, 2016 will go down as the graveyard of orthodoxy.
The populist surge in the United States, Britain and continental Europe represents a politics that promises the earth first, and only worries about how it’s all going to be delivered later. That poses enormous challenges for policy specialists, for whom the gritty prosaic realities of making real things happen are always front of mind.
Think Tanks today confront a political culture in which reason is no longer an accepted ground-rule of the game, but a contested value which has to fight its corner; a culture where disdain for the evidence is too often wrapped up in the language of anti-elitism. As Michael Gove infamously put it during the Brexit referendum: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
But all this makes the role of Think Tanks—or at least good Think Tanks—more important, not less. It is precisely at times like these, when so many wild ideas are in play, that clear and measured thinking and analysis is so important. Somebody needs to hold a torch for the truth through an era in which too many leaders seem eager to forget it.
And in 2016 it is easy to become dazzled by the extraordinary headlines, and forget that behind them lurk deeper challenges that will not go away, no matter how many establishment politicians may tumble. These include climate change, yawning inequality, stagnant productivity, rapidly ageing demography, and the enormous problems of foreign policy and global governance posed by the war in Syria, the refugee crisis and continued maladies of the eurozone. These things have not gone away and the need for expert analysis remains.
This is the context in which we held Prospect’s Think Tank Awards, lending the 2016 ceremony a special poignancy. It took place in the Speaker’s rooms inside the House of Commons, a modest effort to remind parliamentarians not to lock the experts out.
The US Awards
The evening started with a clutch of awards to Think Tanks based in the land which has just elected Donald Trump as president. The Economic and Financial (US) category featured some extremely impressive entries. Judges hailed the Bipartisan Policy Center’s work on retirement security and personal savings. It was described as “major,” and all the more impressive for demonstrating balance in an “increasingly polarised debate.” The Milken Institute was praised for its work on capital flows, and Third Way’s report, Ready for the New Economy was hailed as having “rightly made waves in the Democratic establishment.”
The joint runners-up emerged as the Copenhagen Consensus Center, for the way it had convened so many world class specialists, and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, whose work on the economics of new ideas was judged to be “outstanding.”
There could only be one winner, however, and this was the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Led by Adam Posen, a former rate-setter at the Bank of England, its work on the stability of the US financial system was deemed “deeply impressive” and of an “incredibly high caliber.” Seeing as it was, at least in part, the fall-out from the financial crisis that landed American politics at its current pass, I would add that to the extent that such work can help us avoid a re-run, it speaks urgently to the moment.
With an intermittent climate change denier on his way to the White House, the American Energy and Environment award was particularly pertinent, too. The work done by the Arctic Institute—Center for Circumpolar Security Studies impressed, and the Seven Pillars Institute was cited for its deft work on eco-tourism. The Inter-American Dialogue had a very impressive year, with work one judge summed up as: “Well-focused & timely,” taking “into account global oil prices and the growing influence of Latin American governments on climate negotiations and actions.”
But the winner this year was the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, whose work was extremely influential, especially on the setting of emissions targets. The judges noted that: “Many of the ideas discussed at its gathering were eventually replicated in the Paris agreement. That’s as high impact as it gets.”
In the US Social Policy category, judges were impressed by New America, with its “sensible and fair minded” work on adult training and care, and also cited the Institute for Women’s Policy Research for making a “real contribution on the “vital subject” of women’s role in the workforce, especially through its work on paid leave and childcare for young mothers. The Peterson Institute was excellent in 2016 and the Copenhagen Consensus Center was strong in its work on demographic change.
But the winner this year was the “always rigorous” Rand Corporation, whose work on the opioid abuse epidemic haunting America was unflinching. As Diane Roberts recently wrote in Prospect, while reviewing JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, to make any sort of sense of what is happening to American politics right now, it is first necessary to get your head round the despair, the self-harm and the addictions of its forgotten communities.
Moving to the International Affairs (US) category, the Hudson Institute was lauded as “an important player with a very explicit agenda with hugely valuable networks, while the Center for the Study of the Drone conducted “important but very specialised work” this year. The Stimson Center was also praised for its work on drone warfare and Freedom House and Inter-American Dialogue were also commended. But emerging at the top of this impressive pile was the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which claims this year’s award for its work, on the international relations aspect of environmental policy especially, which was “truly innovative and global in its scope. It combined issues of immense importance with an impressive record of engagement and persuasion.”
Under pressure from Brexit, a strained single currency, and a populist wave which is disturbing the traditional mode of politics in capitals from Vienna, to Paris and Rome, the European Union of 2016 finds itself with at least as much need for expert advice as the US.
The first European award covered Economic and Financial Affairs. The Centre for Economic and Social Research has done interesting work on tax and VAT evasion. Their idea of an online inflation index was also novel.
Sweden’s Katalys continues to ask pressing questions on, among other things, the length of the working week. RAND Europe produced startling analysis, not least the finding that corruption costs the EU as much as €990bn in lost GDP each year. SNS, another Swedish Think Tank, undertook powerful analysis on mechanisation and the workplace, concluding that “The introduction of robots leads to a reduction in employment in low-skilled jobs, but at the total level there is no sign that it causes a decline in the number of industrial jobs.” But Bruegel was—in terms of both depth and breadth—the stand-out this year, not least for the close eye it has kept on the ongoing Greek crisis.
Bruegel also also featured in the Energy and the Environment category, with strong work on low carbon technology. SNS also produced thought-provoking ideas for improving transport, while the Fridtjof Nansen Institute excelled, advising the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on environmental questions in the polar regions. The Mercator Institute also impressed judges this year for its work on climate change. But the winner was the Institute for European Environmental Policy, who in work judged “remarkable for its diversity and insightfulness” shone a light on on the protection of the seas and the future of agricultural policy.
In the EU International Affairs category, The Bonn International Center for Conversion impressed as “an intriguing specialist” on arms control, which highlighted in particular how damaging “the spread of arms among extremists” is proving in Africa. The European Council on Foreign Relations also shone, being judged “important and influential,” not least for the strong case it made for Europe’s institutions and lead nations to do more to help the situation in Syria. But the winner this year was Carnegie Europe, a prolific organisation that has done excellent work on Ukraine, especially the corrosive effect of corruption there. Its work on European defence spending, a newly-salient issue, was also prescient, as was its analysis of the global governance of cyberspace. It was, the judges concluded, “the global perspective of this think-tank” that gave it the edge.
The first award on the UK home front covered Economic and Financial affairs. Although the oldest of “Think Tanks,” having been founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellingon, the Royal United Services Institute was not until recently a go-to place for financial number crunching. This year, however, it was hailed as having “quickly become the ‘go to’ expert” on financial crime and security, a £24bn British problem. “A great example,” the judges said, “of a Think Tank expanding into a complementary area of expertise.”
The IPPR, which is under new leadership, has also had a strong year. “It continues”, the judges said, “to impress with the variety of its work on economics in a distinctive, and progressive manner,” not least on Brexit and the productivity puzzle. The Centre for Cities was strong on devolution, and Policy Exchange was judged to have “continued to focus on turning ideological principles into actionable policy programmes,” and with “rigour” that is “impressive.”
The Centre for Policy Studies “has covered an impressive breadth of issues”—particularly on pensions, demography and the case for scrapping deposit insurance—all of it strongly “rooted in their pro-markets view.” Common Vision “are carving out a reputation in an important and often overlooked niche,” displaying impressive attention to detail on tax. The Institute for Economic Affairs remains prolific and influential, not least through its vast Paragon Initiative into the failures of government.
Meanwhile, The Social Market Foundation have also traipsed the breadth of “a large field of work this year. Their distinctive—and impartial—approach continues to impress,” not least on the economic consequences of immigration, the labour market and Brexit.
Brexit has, of course, been the defining issue of the year for British politics and The UK in a Changing Europe have put themselves at the heart of the debate by providing timely, rigorous and impartial evidence throughout the campaign and beyond. But the winner this year is the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has continued to build on its unrivalled authority on the public finances. The IFS entry dryly observed that: “The period in the run up to the referendum was a difficult one for all involved in independent analysis.” But it wasn’t deterred, and emerges as a more than worthy winner.
In the Energy and the Environment category, Bright Blue was singled out for its study of energy after coal. Policy Exchange was, according to one judge, the “best of the centre-right think tanks”, with outstanding work on air pollution and the decarbonisation of heating.
The IPPR emerged as an “Excellent runner-up, clearly influential in politics and the media, through an excellent choice of topics and high quality prescriptions.” Its Lethal and Illegal report into London’s air pollution was striking, as indeed was its overall ambition. But the winner this year was Chatham House. As one judge commented, “The outstanding quality of papers produced, a very wide-ranging convening power, policy advice and influence on national and global politics make this the outstanding think tank today.”
In the UK Social Policy category, Bright Blue has made an impact with analysis of the changing world of work, and The Electoral Reform Society was singled out for its report on the Brexit referendum. Polygeia, a new entrant this year, was hailed by one judge as “inspiring.” Run by students, it examines public health in the developing world. 2020 Health has done some interesting work on life sciences and wellbeing.
Meanwhile, the new Education Policy Institute—only formed in June from the old CentreForum—has in a few months done huge amounts on grammar schools, and teacher workload.
The International Longevity Centre has focused on one of the biggest problems of our time—providing social care to an aging population—and the Social Market Foundation has done important work on redefining the centre of British politics, and the judges were impressed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ work on graduate earnings and UK living standards.
But the winner this year is the RSA, which judges said was “a great and well respected institution which none the less continues to innovate.” Its “outstanding” work on basic income demonstrated a rare ability to marry a big and disruptive idea with determined number-crunching.
In the UK International Affairs category, the Centre for European Reform was judged a “Very high class group, and capable of very good up to date commentary,” as it demonstrated after the Brexit vote. The Adam Smith Institute was cited for its “high standard” of work, especially for its reports Stuck in the Middle with EU, and The Case for the Interim EEA Option. The European Leadership Network produced some “very interesting” work, not least on Russia’s relations with Nato. The UK in a Changing Europe have been “brilliant” in framing complex ideas in a way that commands a wide audience.
RUSI was, one judge said, “outstanding,” applying notable “rigor” to the illegal wildlife trade in Africa. But the winner this year was Chatham House, which judges said was “Still the gold standard for professionalism and knowledge.” Its paper titled The Asia Power Balance: Beyond the US-China Narrative, was, judges said “an excellent example as to why Chatham House has the impact that it does.”
Each year, Prospect singles out a new entrant into the British think tank world. There was some debate over whether the winner strictly speaking qualified as a think tank at all, something this institution might want to think about in badging its public policy work in future. But with 2016 being a year of the unorthodox—and having impressed in multiple categories—the winner of this year’s One-to-Watch category is The UK in a Changing Europe.
Last but not least, the overall winner of the Think Tank of the Year award goes to an organisation that straddled several categories, and triumphed in two. In a troubled world where all sorts of developments are blurring the old divide between domestic and foreign policy, the stand-out entrant is an outfit that used to be known for understanding the world beyond British shores, but whose analysis is increasingly hitting the home front too. It is the reliably excellent Chatham House.
The judges this year were:
- Vince Cable
- Shami Chakrabarti
- Suzanne Goldenberg
- Fiona Harvey
- Peter Kellner
- Martin Kettle
- David King
- Vicky Pryce
- Joshua Rozenberg
- Jack Straw
- Justin Webb
- Patrick Wintour
- Duncan Weldon
Thanks to our principal sponsor, Rolls-Royce, for supporting the Awards
and to the category sponsors: Octopus Investments, Vuelio, British Academy and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Full list of the winners and those who were shortlisted:
- US Economic and Financial
- Winner – Peterson Institute for International Economics
- Shortlisted – Copenhagen Consensus Center and Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
- US Energy and Environment
- Winner – Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
- Shortlisted – Inter-American Dialogue
- Shortlisted – The Arctic Institute: Center for Circumpolar Security Studies
- US Social Policy
- Winner – RAND Corporation
- Shortlisted – Copenhagen Consensus Center
- Shortlisted – Peterson Institute for International Economics
- US International Affairs
- Winner – Copenhagen Consensus Center
- Shortlisted – Inter-American Dialogue
- Shortlisted – Stimson Center
- EU Economic and Financial
- Winner – Bruegel
- Shortlisted – SNS – Center for Business and Policy Studies
- Shortlisted – RAND Europe
- EU Energy and Environment
- Winner – Institute for European Environmental Policy
- Shortlisted – Fridtjof Nansen Institute
- Shortlisted – Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change
- EU International Affairs
- Winner – Carnegie Europe
- Shortlisted – European Council on Foreign Relations
- Shortlisted – BICC – Bonn International Center for Conversion
- UK Economic and Financial
- Winner – Institute for Fiscal Studies
- Shortlisted – Social Market Foundation
- Shortlisted – The UK in a Changing Europe
- UK Energy and Environment
- Winner – Chatham House
- Shortlisted – Institute for Public Policy Research
- Shortlisted – Policy Exchange
- UK Social Policy
- Winner – The RSA
- Shortlisted – Institute for Fiscal Studies
- Shortlisted – Bright Blue
- UK International Affairs
- Winner – Chatham House
- Shortlisted – Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
- Shortlisted – Centre for European Reform
- Winner – The UK in a Changing Europe
- Think Tank of the Year
- Winner – Chatham House
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