An editorial the Guardian published this weekend suggested stronger vetting procedures when bestowing charitable status upon think tanks to ensure that they are not politically partisan:
Think tanks may argue that they advocate certain policies not because they benefit their funders, but because they are the right policy choice for the country. That’s fine – so they should list their donors. Think tanks have no electoral mandate. Nor are they mass membership organisations. The legitimacy of their voice in democratic debates rests largely on their intellectual independence. They ought to demonstrate this by revealing who funds them.
The state has endorsed this behaviour in two main ways: one by failing to challenge think tanks that say they are charities to show they are truly non-partisan. The second is to let them hide their funders – unlike the majority of UK research institutions. This has to stop. Under the law, anybody can set up a think tank and pump in cash to produce studies to influence public perceptions. Just as Britain is getting ready to negotiate Brexit terms, foreign donors spent £1m, it is reported, to influence policy under the Adam Smith Institute brand. The best way of assessing whether they are corporate shills or not is to force think tanks to show where their money comes from. Then they can participate in public debate effectively. In a democracy, it is only by bringing secrets into the light of the day that they can be examined.
The editorial ran in parallel to the Guardian’s coverage of a court case involving the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a high profile UK think tank that reportedly does not disclose who its funders are. To date, Transparify has not formally rated the disclosure level of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
The Guardian’s editorial focused its ire on UK free market think tanks. In this context, it is worth noting that there are several financially transparent free market think tanks in other countries, such as Heritage Foundation in the U.S. (4-star transparent) and IEA Kenya (5-star transparent).
Conversely, within the UK, there are opaque think tanks that do not have a free market orientation. These include the Tony Blair Institute, which does not appear to disclose the identities of its funders, but which has not been formally rated by Transparify to date. In 2017, Transparify was forced to introduce a new rating category – “deceptive” – for major UK think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), because the disclosures made on its website had failed to reveal the identity of its single largest donor. Transparify’s research showed that IISS’ annual expenditure was in excess of £16 million, making it the third largest spender among think tanks in the country.