Transparify on the Integrity of Think Tanks

Over the past weeks, the American media and legislators have devoted considerable attention to think tanks and their role in the policy making process. In this blog, Transparify will try to clarify its position on some of the questions raised and arguments made, with the hope of encouraging a balanced and mature discussion of the important issues at stake.

1. Accepting donor money does not equate to selling out

Transparify does not believe that when a think tank accepts funding, it is inevitably compromising itself and its staff members, and committing to produce policy advice favorable to that donor’s interest. Every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests.  

Most leading think tanks have nothing to hide regarding their relationships with funders. We expect that over half of major U.S. think tanks will have become “broadly transparent” or “highly transparent” by the time we re-assess their disclosure levels in December 2014, up from less than 30% one year ago.

This sector-wide shift towards voluntary disclosure and greater transparency should be recognized and applauded even as we keep encouraging those that still lag behind.

2. Financial transparency versus guaranteed integrity

A think tank that is financially transparent is not afraid of disclosing who funds it because it is confident in the quality of its research, its intellectual independence and integrity. Financial transparency opens the door to accountability claims and is thus a powerful signalling device.

At the same time, financial transparency alone does not make a think tank immune to conflicts of interest on the institutional or personal level. Think tanks are aware of this and most have put a variety of safeguards and firewalls in place to insulate their experts from external pressures. (Note that Transparify currently does NOT assess such mechanisms in its ratings.)

Transparify strongly encourages journalists and other commentators to engage in a two-way exchange with individual think tanks regarding their safeguards and firewalls before publicly accusing them of funding-induced bias.

We also invite think tanks to share their best practices in this regard, and will highlight promising approaches in future blog posts.

3. Foreign funding versus domestic funding

The issue of foreign funding for U.S. think tanks has recently received great attention. However, limiting the discussion to foreign funding obscures the fact that the bulk of money flowing into U.S. policy research institutions is American money. These domestic funders – be they foundations, corporations, trade unions, or public bodies – usually have interests too.

Transparify has not seen any evidence that foreign funding poses greater dangers to research integrity or sound policy-making than domestic funding does. The debate should be about money and integrity, not about foreign currency and integrity.

4. Rapid regulation versus effective regulation

There have recently been moves to broaden the scope of disclosure requirements for Congressional testimony, and at least one call to review the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Transparify welcomes this interest in curbing abuses of the ‘scholar’ label. At the same time, we strongly encourage legislators to consult with transparent think tanks and other stakeholders to ensure that any new measures do not have unintended negative consequences, can be applied equally to all players, and will actually work in practice.

5. Policy analysis versus free advertising

The Public Editor of the New York Times recently reviewed her newspaper’s policies regarding contributions made by think tanks and individual experts, and concluded that “[f]or its readers to evaluate ideas, they need to know where they’re coming from — and who might be paying for them”. Transparify applauds the NYT’s commitment to paying greater attention to op-ed contributors’ backgrounds in future.

Over the coming weeks, we will follow up with other major publications and encourage them to similarly review their own policies in this regard. With over half of U.S. think tanks across the political spectrum expected to be financially transparent by the end of this year, there is no need for editors to continue providing a free platform to experts affiliated with opaque institutions.

The debate continues. To sum up:

  • think tanks can take money without compromising their integrity
  • financial transparency, safeguards and firewalls are all important
  • domestic funding surpasses foreign funding, and when hidden, can be equally problematic
  • attempts at regulation should be preceded by consultation
  • there is no need for editors to give free space to opaque think tanks

Transparify looks forward to a lively and constructive debate about how we can improve think tanks’ contribution to policy formulation and democratic decision-making.

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