Our think tanks lack the funds of their US rivals—but they punch above their weightby James Crabtree / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
The word “wonk” is said to have a jocular origin. Reverse the letters and you see why; backwards, it describes someone meant to know everything. Even so, the intellectual cadre of Britain’s think tank scene often seem to lack confidence, especially when comparing themselves to their American cousins. Andrew Adonis, now head of the Institute for Government (IfG), recent winner of Prospect’s think tank of the year award 2010, doesn’t mince his words: “I think we are right to have an inferiority complex with the US. Our think tanks, as a group, are hugely inferior to those in Washington: in influence, in quality, and in funding.”
Anyone visiting the block of Massachusetts Avenue just south of DuPont Circle in the US capital will find numerous reasons to support Adonis’s view. Here, half a dozen behemoths sit next to one another. The foreign policy experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the economists at the Peterson Institute make do with one capacious building each. The Brookings Institution has two. Their conservative rivals are just as lavish; the combined budget of the four largest reaches $120m a year. So large and powerful are US think tanks that Brookings expert Peter Singer argued recently in Washingtonian magazine that they are best thought of not as political ginger groups but “universities with no students.”
In Britain, such a characterisation would be absurd. Ours are more like tiny, cash-strapped universities without the academics, staffed by underpaid twentysomething researchers scrabbling to raise funds. Yet despite this, they have been enjoying a strong period of late—more than matching the late 1970s, when the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs pushed Thatcherite privatisation, and the mid-1990s, when Demos and the IPPR channelled many of the ideas and people that fuelled new Labour.
The primary reason for this resurgence is the ebb and flow of the political cycle. It is usually seen as a bad thing that media attention and funding flow back and forth between institutions depending on whose side is about to win an election. But this faddishness creates vitality too, with new organisations born and old ones reinvented. Over the last five years this has seen the growth of a host of new entrants—most, but not all, right-wing outfits like Reform and Policy Exchange—and a sector that is now larger and more varied than ever.
That British think tanks lack the…