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.)

Are Think Tanks Turning into Lobbyists?

Transparify today releases an annotated bibliography on how think tanks influence policy makers containing dozens of media stories and academic articles on the nexus between policy wonks and policy makers.

Think tanks influence policy in multiple ways. Their staff pen op-eds, appear on television, testify in hearings, cultivate close relationships with politicians, build coalitions on policy issues, and shape public debates. In the US, government representatives by now are reportedly utilizing think tanks’ research outputs more often than they use the Congressional Research Service, but this does not necessarily reflect a global trend. For example, think tanks in India are thought to lack access to government officials, while in China, the degree of access seems to depend on where an institution is located. In Brussels, their lack of influence on debates is reportedly limited by… their boringness

Where think tanking ends and lobbying begins is often unclear. Many think tanks would argue that educating politicians is distinct from lobbying them, and do not want to be associated with lobbying. However, think tanks have often been criticized for overstepping the line, with many senior staff in the US reportedly moonlighting as lobbyists even as they work for supposedly independent research institutions. On the far end of the spectrum, there are rumours of some public relations firms setting up fake ‘think tanks’ in order to lend their propaganda a veneer of impartial scholarship. The distinction is not only ethical, but also carries legal implications, as a lobbying outfits most certainly are not charitable organizations and therefore do not qualify for tax free status. In at least one case in the UK, the country’s Charity Commission concluded that a registered think tank was in fact a lobbying front and shut it down

Where should the line be drawn? What the legal and regulatory issues are at stake? Is freedom of speech in peril once regulators start stepping in? If you want to share your views, post a comment below or contact us to submit a guest blog on the subject.

For your reference, our latest bibliography is here.

Does It Matter Who Funds You?

What do the American IRS and British parliament have in common? Both are beginning to look closely at think tanks amid concerns that hidden political financing and clandestine lobbying sometimes cloak themselves in the mantle of non-partisan policy research. Our new bibliography on think tank funding released today shows that think tanks’ non-profit status and associated tax and donor confidentiality privileges may have attracted a few sharks to the pool – and the pool wardens are following in their wake.

Most commentators focus on the influence of ‘big money’ on the policy landscape. However, our compilation of media stories shows that government bodies and trade unions are also thought to have vested interests that may influence the policy recommendations provided by the think tanks they fund. Some governments have apparently formed proxy “phantom think tanks” that are independent only in name.

To what extent do think tanks play the tunes ordered by their paymasters? Do some think tanks really sell policy prescriptions for cash? Or are there more subtle influences at work, like self-censorship by individual policy wonks who want to hold on to their jobs? Or is there in fact no problem at all, because donors throw coins only into the hats of those pipers whose tunes they like listening to anyway? At least one think tanker claims that donors tend to choose think tanks that hold views similar to their own, effectively arguing that their influence is limited to amplifying some of the music already being played – the musicians need not compromise.

Some observers worry especially about funders that are based abroad. If some Americans raise the alarm about the influence that donations to think tanks from foreign governments might buy inside the mighty US, what about the influence that US money could buy overseas? It’s worth remembering that in many developing countries much – if not most – think tank funding comes from foreign sources. For example, think tanks in poor landlocked Nepal are so heavily dependent on foreign donors that they reportedly “find themselves compromising their goals” in order to survive financially. But are domestic donors really preferable to foreign ones? Some Latin American think tanks reportedly feel that embracing foreign money leaves them with more independence than accepting funds from their own governments would do…

What do you think? Does it matter who funds your work? Or are other factors more important in safeguarding the independence and quality of think tanks’ policy analysis? Post a comment below. 

For your reference, our summary of the debate on think tank funding is here.