How Think Tanks Work

It may be clichéd, but we're willing to bet that a lot of think tanks have Rodin's Thinker sitting somewhere in their offices.
Wesley VanDinter/iStock/Thinkstock

Think tanks reign as the place where scholars, policy makers, government officials, politicians and other folks work to find solutions to public problems. If you envision a group of people sitting in a huge fish bowl, hands on their chins, contemplating the fate of humanity, you wouldn't be too far off the mark, sans the allusion to Rodin's Thinker. In the past 50 years or so, these thought factories have come to play an enormous role in shaping public policy, not only in the United States but across the globe [sources: Shaikh, Troy].

Not all think tanks are created equal. Some are concerned with political issues. Others study defense or scientific issues. Many spend their considerable intellectual capital on economic and social issues.


Despite their recent prominence, think tanks aren't terribly new. One of history's greatest thinkers, Plato, founded what some consider the world's first think tank: The Academy. Plato's Academy was located in a garden just outside ancient Athens where he and other scholars discussed a variety of philosophical issues including the benefits of skepticism. For instance, they once decided that knowledge was uncertain and life was essentially a craps game based on probability rather than absolute truth [source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].

Fast-forward to 1831 when Great Britain's Duke of Wellington established the Royal United Services Institution [source: Rohrer]. Across the pond, the first international affairs think tank sprang up in the United States in 1910 with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and it's still active today.

The Brookings Institution, founded by philanthropist Robert Brookings in 1916, could be the archetype of the modern think tank. Growing out of the reform-minded Progressive era in the early 1900s, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution claims to be the "first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy." In the 1930s, Brookings experts outlined the causes of the Great Depression that helped shape President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Today, Brookings likes to say it is the "most quoted and most trusted think tank" in the world [sources: Brookings Institution, Troy].

Pushing Policy or Just Proposing It?

Think tanks typically dole out the advice on a particular issue, but sometimes it's the other way around. In this picture, President Obama speaks about job creation and economic growth at the Brookings Institution on Dec. 8, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
© Mark Wilson/Pool/Corbis

After World War II, think tanks began playing an important role in the shaping of government policy. People regarded them as academic organizations that took a nonpartisan, scholarly approach to public policy issues. Their proliferation in the United States was pushed along by their tax-exempt status, which was codified in 1913. In the 1950s, Congress refined the limits on what think tanks could and could not do politically if they wanted to keep their tax-exempt status. They had to straddle a thin line between information and partisan activity. They couldn't offer support to specific parties or candidates; they could only educate [source: Troy].

While many think tanks still carry on objective work, some now have narrower, partisan agendas. Scholars have called these institutions "advocacy" think tanks. They serve as training grounds for activists and for politicians and policy makers who wait to take the reins of government again. For example, after Democrats were beaten in the 2000 elections, party members, progressive intellectuals and activists started the Center for American Progress, a liberal economic organization. Although it bills itself as a "nonpartisan" educational organization, CAP's stated goal is to "develop new policy ideas, critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate" [sources: Troy, Center for American Progress].


In 2008, with the Democrats in ascendancy, conservatives and members of the Republican Party formed right-of-center think tanks to move the United States down a more conservative economic path in the hopes of regaining the White House [source: Troy].

Regardless of size, ideological bent or issue, all think tanks have one thing in common: to influence public opinion and policy. After World War II, Brookings was instrumental in rebuilding war-ravaged Europe by helping to design the Marshall Plan. During the early days of the Cold War, the Council on Foreign Relations helped shaped a policy of containment, which the Western democracies used against the communist Soviet Union [source: Troy].

In the 1980s, the Heritage Foundation drafted an extensive, conservative political agenda for Ronald Reagan's transition team. The agenda contained more than 2,000 recommendations that United Press International called "a blueprint for grabbing the government by its frayed New Deal lapels and shaking out 48 years of liberal policy." Reagan's team tried to implement more than two-thirds of those proposals during his two terms. On the other side of the aisle, the Progressive Policy Institute offered numerous proposals that Democratic President Bill Clinton turned into policy actions, including AmeriCorps and Al Gore's attempt to "re-invent government" [sources: Blasko, Troy].

Money's Influence

There are thousands of think tanks in the world. There's even one devoted to introducing people to Ayn Rand's novels and her philosophy of objectivism, and it's headquartered in Irvine, California.
© Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Given that little history, you can see how criticism of think tanks abounds. Although they often bill themselves as "independent" and media outlets may portray think tank experts as "neutral," that's not always the case. That ties into perhaps the biggest criticism: the funding mechanism for think tanks. The organizations get most of their money through donations by large businesses, major foundations, private individuals and charities, as well as income from consulting and research. They are not required by law to list their donors.

That's a problem if you believe that think tanks often tailor messages to mimic the ideology of donors who demand results. For example, in recent years, conservative billionaires have funneled $120 million to 100 groups and think tanks hoping to discredit climate change science and redefine the political debate as a "wedge issue" for conservative politicians. Campaign-finance reform rules have allowed donors to support political causes like this without breaking the law [source: Goldenberg].


In 2013, weekly magazine The Nation revealed that the positions of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and other Washington think tanks are shaped by the interests of their donors.

"Nowadays, many Washington think tanks effectively serve as unregistered lobbyists for corporate donors, and companies strategically contribute to them just as they hire a PR or lobby shop or make campaign donations," wrote Ken Silverstein in the article.

Moreover, think tanks are not obligated by law to release their financial statements, nor do they have to reveal their donors. As a result, people don't know if a study is impartial [source: Silverstein].

Critics also see a nefarious relationship between corporations and think tanks. For example, the foundation run by Charles and David Koch, billionaires who run the second-largest privately held company in the United States, supports the work of the conservative Heritage Foundation and the centrist Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, among others. The Walton Family Foundation (read: Wal-Mart) funds a variety of conservative think tanks. They also support centrist institutions that have backed President Obama's Affordable Care Act. Why would the conservative foundation lend its support to a pro-Obama think tank? Critics say the group supported a law that would force employers to pay for their employees' health insurance. The reason: The law would have driven up health care costs for Wal-Mart's small business competitors [sources: Wiesenthal, Carp].

Still, scholars say that actual "bought and paid for" research is rare, although some think tank researchers are unlikely to publish a study or an essay that infuriates their bosses or major donors. Moreover, the clash of money has often caused some think tanks to self-censor on issues in which they have been vocal about out in the past [source: Troy].

Think tanks are highly influential. As result, we can expect more of them. Moreover, experts say, think tanks will become more political, adding to the intellectual and partisan din coming from government.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Think Tanks Work

When it comes to modern think tanks, it is best that all of us take a page from Plato, founder of the first think tank, and Arcesilaus, who became head of Plato's Academy long before any of us were born. Both were skeptics. Think tank experts are oft-quoted, as are their studies and essays. It's our job as citizens to look skeptically at what they say and what they promulgate.

Related Articles

  • Blasko, Andrew. "Reagan and Heritage: A Unique Partnership." The Heritage Foundation. (April 16, 2014)
  • Brookings Institution. "About Brookings." (April 15, 2014)
  • Carp, Rick. "Who Pays for Think Tanks?" Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting." July 1, 2013. (April 16, 2014)
  • Center for American Progress. "About the Center for American Progress." (April 17, 2014)
  • Goldenberg, Suzanne. "Secret funding helped built vast network of climate denial think tanks." The Guardian. Feb. 14, 2013. (April 16, 2014)
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Plato: The Academy." (April, 15, 2014)
  • Rohrer, Finlo. "Just what is a think tank?" BBC News. Jan. 15, 2008. (April 15, 2014)
  • Shaikh, Salman. "Think Tanks" A Social Good for the Global Community." Brookings Institution. April 6, 2014. (April 16, 2014)
  • Silverstein, Ken. "The Secret Donors Behind the Center for American Progress and Other Think Tanks." The Nation. May 21, 2013. (April 16, 2014)
  • Troy, Trevi. "Devaluing the Think Tank." National Affairs. Winter 2012. (April 15, 2014)
  • University of Pennsylvania. "2013 Global Go To Think Tank Index." Jan. 22, 2014. (April 15, 2014)
  • Weisenthal, Joe. "Wal-Mart Supports Health Plan that Will Destroy Small Businesses." Business Insider. June 30, 2009. (April, 16, 2014)