Top tanks

Our think tanks lack the funds of their US rivals—but they punch above their weight
November 17, 2010

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 resources to do the policy spadework their US equivalents churn out also matters less in a country with a permanent civil service. Their place is instead to channel and popularise ideas, while providing a finishing school for politicians and their advisers, from David Willetts to David Miliband. It is a role they generally perform well—and their intellectual liveliness is all the clearer when compared with British universities, where too much research effort is directed towards unread scholarly journals, and too little to the public square.

The past few years have seen major policy “hits” for think tanks, too. Speaking at the Prospect awards ceremony in early November, Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport, emphasised how much think tanks have influenced the Tory party over the past five years. The recent single welfare payment proposals were husbanded by the Centre for Social Justice, just as both Demos and Phillip Blond’s ResPublica sustained David Cameron’s progressive conservatism. Meanwhile the Institute for Government pushed the “Canadian model” for our budget cuts, while the conservative Policy Exchange and Lib Dem CentreForum scrap over which did the most to push the idea of a pupil premium.

Weaknesses remain, of course, not least when loyalty or ideological proximity precludes some think tanks from criticising their respective parties. The problem of money remains troubling, too. Any attendee at a political party conference will soon realise how the search for funding sees many reduce themselves to vehicles for corporate sponsors. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, Britain’s most admired economic think tank, escapes this trap only by accepting state funding, via the Economic and Social Research Council.

Solving this isn’t easy. I recall one think tank veteran joking that the real problem was oversupply. His solution was a cull: divide the tanks into two camps—those with Latinate names (Demos, Theos, Civitas and so on) and those with three or four letter acronyms (IPPR, CEPR, IFS). Close down whichever group is the smaller and redistribute their funds to the others.

Yet it’s worth remembering that the funding issue is the result of a strength of Britain’s political system: it is less dominated by corporate money than America’s. Indeed the real problem for British think tanks is not that they are overly reliant on the donations of a few rich individuals, but that too few rich individuals are giving serious money. Until the rich reach into their pockets, our think tanks may never achieve their full potential—but they can, and do, punch above their weight.

For more details of Prospect’s think tank of the years awards, supported by Shell, click here