Transparency and Funding of Think Tanks in France

 A compilation of publications on think tank funding and think tank transparency and a review of relevant websites in French language published on the Transparify website today provides a snapshot of relevant debates in France and suggests that French think tank may be less transparent than their peers elsewhere in the European Union.

The literature review section shows that debates about think tanks’ influence, their financing and their intellectual independence are global in scope. Do think tanks strengthen or weaken democracy? How do funding pressures shape think tanks’ operations? How independent are policy wonks from those who fund them? Which economic sectors finance which think tanks, and why? Clearly, these questions are seen to be relevant beyond the world of “Anglo-Saxon” policy research.

The author, Alexis Courbon Michel, also visited the websites of some prominent French think tanks and reviewed their conflict of interest policies, funding strategies and available financial data. A mixed picture emerges from his review. On the one hand, French think tanks seem aware of debates about the intellectual integrity of the field. Many seek to signal their credibility by detailing how they manage donor relations, and/or by disclosing substantial amounts of financial data. On the other hand, the author was unable to find any funding information whatsoever on the websites of several prominent French think tanks.

This suggests that think tanks based in France may on average be less transparent than their peers in the European Union. Transparify’s 2015 report, released last month, showed that nearly a third of EU think tanks are transparent or highly transparent. Most other policy shops in the EU assessed by Transparify provide at least some funding information. (Only two think tanks surveyed, both in Britain, are completely opaque: the Institute of Economic Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In addition, numerous Spanish think tanks are reportedly also keeping their books firmly shut.)

Transparify would like to thank Alexis Courbon Michel for generously sharing his research with us, and with the wider think tank community. Those interested in learning more about the policy research landscape in France should visit the website of the French Think Tank Observatory


Transparency in Hungary – Political Capital

Guest blogger Péter Krekó from Political Capital, a think tank in Budapest, reacts to Transparify’s recent report, and highlights the country context in Hungary.

Political Capital’s funding transparency recently was assessed by Transparify, and the rating was not particularly flattering. Political Capital does embrace transparency and has nothing to hide about its finances. Given that our institute only receives project funding from its donors, and no core funding, we had put the list of donors on our thematic project websites, here, here and here. We also highlighted our funders with every study, in our press releases, and at our public events.

Transparify's ratings, however, offered a good reminder to make this information even more easily available, therefore we have recently published the list of our Foundation donors on our main website. Additionally, most of our donors do publish information about funding they give to us on their respective websites. We are currently in touch with our donors to ensure that they all agree to publish more information. We are committed to increase our transparency to at least a 3-star level.

At the same time, it is also important to note the regional and national context of transparency. In Hungary for example, there have been several governmental attacks against NGOs and think-tanks over their foreign funding, following the Russian model of action against NGOs. While we are still embracing transparency, as most of the NGO actors in Hungary do, the readers of the study should also understand that the “dangers” of transparency nowadays definitely are higher in some countries in Eastern Europe. 

For more information on the Political Capital Institute, see

Corporate Interests and Think Tanks – An Overview of Current Debates

How and why do corporations fund think tanks? How do think tanks manage potential conflicts of interest? How transparent and traceable is corporate funding to think tanks?

In order to answer these questions, Transparify has located, compiled and reviewed dozens of media stories and research papers. Today, we release the results of our work, an annotated bibliography on “Corporate Interests and Think Tanks”. This is the fourth and last in our series of think tank bibliographies.

Most authors suggest that many corporations fund think tanks out of strategic self-interest. For example,financial industry players in both the US and the UK are thought to systematically support think tanks that produce work that furthers their sponsors’ agendas within a context characterized by intensive lobbying efforts across multiple fronts.

Corporations’ possible influence on energy policy and climate change debates via their funding of think tanks has drawn particular attention. For example, one author claims that “climate change denial” by think tanks has been funded via trusts that enabled their donors to remain anonymous and untraceable despite over one hundred million dollars allegedly passing through such channels. Another retorts that the renewable energy industry too has vested interests, and that it sometimes promotes and defends these interests by… you guessed it… funding policy wonks. A third observer alleges that calls for financial disclosure by think tanks engaged in climate change debates have often been one-eyed as well as one-sided. (Here at Transparify, we simply believe that all think tanks should fully disclose who funds them, regardless of the policy stances that they take.)

Possible conflicts of interest also lurk when think tanks weigh in on questions of war and peace. In a recent guest blog on our website, Gin Armstrong explored such possible conflicts of interest that may have been at play when think tank experts with defence industry ties took to the airwaves in 2013 to discuss US military strikes against Syria. In recent days, she has voiced similar concerns with regard to policy advice being proffered on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Mind you, in an industry dependent on public sector contracts that is notorious for its revolving doors, even public funding for think tanks has not been immune against suspicions of self-interested dealings.

Does the tobacco industry really employ think tanks as mercenaries to fight on its behalf? Do car manufacturers really pay think tanks to talk governments into bailing them out with public funds? Indeed, can any think tank still accept funding from any source without immediately coming under suspicion of having been “bought” by some public or private vested interest?

We at Transparify don’t have the answers. For us, this little media review yields one conclusion: the think tank community may soon face a comprehensive crisis of credibility. If current trends continue, even the most sophisticated and methodologically scrupulous policy research outfits will find it hard to get their findings, ideas and policy recommendations taken at face value.

In an environment increasingly characterized by finger pointing, suspicion and paranoia, think tanks committed to intellectual independence and excellence in research need a way to actively signal to policy makers and the media that they deserve their trust and respect.

Transparify’s aim is to provide think tanks with a tool for signalling their credibility: a policy research institution publicly recognized for its exemplary financial transparency can hardly be accused of harbouring “hidden” agendas.

(For your reference, the bibliography discussed above is accessible here.)

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.

Voluntary Disclosure Can Restore Trust in Think Tanks

Guest blogger Patrick Gilroy warns that think tanks are in danger of losing their credibility. 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.

The ‘think tank’ label still evokes notions of independence and the scholarly pursuit of knowledge, and journalists frequently cite think tanks as independent experts without simultaneously disclosing who funds them (a recent online petition laments the practices of the BBC in this regard). Yet in Washington D.C., one can observe a veritable politicization of think tanks, as avowedly ideological institutes now outnumber the more centrist or scholarly ones. With mandatory contributor disclosure not in sight, think tanks with clearly ideological purposes can still grant hidden sponsors full tax deductibility of donations under tax code section 501(c)(3).

For example, in the US it became publicly known in 2010 to what extent the billionaire Koch Brothers fund conservative think tanks. In Europe too, anecdotes of secret corporate funding of institutes staging a sort of counter-expertise are accumulating. For instance, the oil and gas firm Exxon Mobil funded London- and Brussels-based think tanks to deny climate change and depict EU policies as being based on “junk science”. Think tank networks like the Stockholm Network seem to essentially cater to interested business clients. Such stories add to a profound uncertainty about think tanks’ credibility.

Non- or under-reporting of financial details has led to widespread cynicism. Media pundits worry that “secretive think tanks are crushing our democracy”, lumping together all think tanks in the process. But not (fully) disclosing financial details does not necessarily imply malicious intent. Most balanced think tanks may just shy away from the reporting burden, or do not recognize that beyond being a democratic principle, transparency boosts their primary asset: namely, the perception of key audiences that they are intellectually independent and trustworthy. Voluntary disclosure therefore is the single best tool we have for creating a level playing field.

Because think tanks ultimately depend on this to survive and thrive they should lead by example. Annually disclosing details on who exactly funds their work is not just a sign of professionalism. It must become a strategic priority for think tank leaders worldwide to make such information available on their websites, and within initiatives such as the European Commission and European Parliament’s joint Transparency Register (where over 300 think tanks have registered so far, thereby endorsing its code of conduct). Of course, voluntary disclosure is no perfect remedy, as it is vulnerable to gaming (selective disclosure) or donor capture (anticipatory obedience) in practice.

With think tanks’ rising influence come higher expectations for responsibility. As with Odysseus binding himself to his ship’s mast, think tanks only stand to gain from transparency. Voluntary disclosure is a small step for a think tank, but one giant leap for the credibility of the craft.

Patrick Gilroy is a PhD candidate at the Hertie School of Governance within the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies (BTS). In his empirical research project, situated at the nexus of international relations and organizational sociology, he researches EU-focused think tanks’ influence in European and global governance.