A Rare Look at Italian Think Tanks

Guest blogger Anna Longhini provides a snapshot of the emerging think tank scene in Italy. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Think tanks remain mysterious entities to most Italians.Conversely, in the Anglo-Saxon world there seems to be a much better understanding of what think tanks are, what they do, why they are relevant, and how they are funded. The first book on think tanks came out in Italy only in 2009; a chapter on Italian think tanks and the political system had been published in 2004. While foreign policy think tanks have a much longer tradition, some are comparatively new and take the form of “personal think tanks” linked to individual political leaders.This latter kind of dependency raises questions about the use of the term ‘think tank’ itself and creates some confusion within public opinion.

The two key players in the Italian foreign policy think tank landscape are the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI, since 1965) in Rome and the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI, since 1934) in Milan. A unique player is the Italian branch of the Aspen Institute, established in Italy in 1984 with a focus on transatlantic relations. Other, smaller think tanks mainly operate in Rome, Milan and Turin. All of these have less well defined activities, their main decisions are in the hands of their directors, and they are comparatively understaffed.

When I first started to research Italian think tanks, I found it hard to find financial information on their websites. When it comes to foreign policy think tanks receiving public money, we do have data on relevant national public funding in 2012 because some think tanks are listed among the so-called “EntiInternazionalistici”. This means they are under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and as such are listed in a report released by the ministry that disclosed these relationships as part of a wider open government effort. At the same time, we know that major corporations fund some think tanks, but we do not know to what extent and on what terms. Is such private sector funding just a matter of generating visibility? Or do companies expect something in exchange? These questions remain unanswered.

Behind Italian think tanks there is a world composed of experts. These experts’knowledge on current international issues seems fresh and appealing when compared to that offered by often boring and far-from-reality academic professors. Their profile is rising within Europe, partly through (contested) international rankings, partly through events such as the recent European Think Tanks Summit. But they still remain almost unknown to the Italian public, partly due to historical factors, partly because Italian policymakers do not draw on them for policy advice.

Italian think tanks do not seem to recognize the importance of transparency. At the same time, in my experience, major Italian think tanks are willing to give details on their budgets when interviewed. So their current lack of transparency may be chiefly ascribed to low pressure to become more transparent about their funds and activities.

Anna Longhini is a PhD student at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, and a visiting PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London in spring 2014. Her current research interest is comparing foreign policy think tanks in Italy, Germany and the UK.