US Think Tanks Continue to Grow – New Transparify Analysis

Think tanks in the United States continue to grow, according to 2016 numbers that now are available. The expenditure of the top 21 think tanks in the United States grew by 6% and revenues by 5% between 2015 and 2016, significantly above inflation. While net assets stayed flat, employee numbers grew slightly, by 3%. The number of staff paid more than $100k increased by 10%, thus showing particularly strong growth.

Within the group of think tanks, there were significant differences. In terms of expenditures, the Wilson Center (60%) grew particularly strongly, as did the Center for New American Security (CNAS, 27%), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI, 22%), the New America Foundation (19%), and the World Resources Institute (WRI, 16%).

The German Marshall Fund (GMFUS) decreased its budget by 11%, and Brookings (-3%) and the Heritage Foundation (-2%) also decreased their expenditure.

The numbers show that think tank funding is choppy. Not too much should be read into a year-on-year change, as funding often comes in lumps, for example through a targeted campaign or a large one-off gift. Yet long-term, the trends are interesting to follow. In 2016, CSIS had a 97% increase in funding, the Wilson Center 72%, CNAS 68%, New America 65%, and the WRI 37%. We are happy to note that New America and the World Resources Institute are 5-star transparent think tanks, too, and that CSIS has 4-star transparency.

In terms of funding decreases, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) had a 49% reduction, though this primarily is a result of a high yield in 2015, and CBPP is now broadly back to its previous funding levels. The same pattern applies to the AEI, with its 29% decrease, after a particularly successful year. The International Crisis Group however, experienced a substantive cut of -29%, down to $13m, and is at its lowest level of funding in more than ten years.

The numbers continue to illustrate the size of the entire sector. The largest institutions remain the RAND Corporation (by far, with its $327m budget), followed by Brookings ($105m), WRI ($90m), the Urban Institute ($88m) and the Heritage Foundation ($81m). In total, the top 21 institutions have a combined budget of $1.15bn, combined net assets of $2.59bn and they employ more than 7,700 people in the United States. (Anyone who pays taxes in the US is in the counts, so this will include interns and non-research staff, and exclude staff in offices outside the US.)

One remarkable change is the increase in the number of staff paid more than $100.000. This has increased by 10% across the institutions, and together there are more than 1,700 people with that level of salary, reflecting that at least in some institutions, expertise is well remunerated.

These are only some of the headline numbers. The spread sheet has much more detail, averages and medians, maximum and minimum, and is sortable. (Thanks to the Transparify team and to Johann Schmidt for assembling the numbers.) It should thus be of interest to anyone who wants to compare think tank numbers.

The data broadly reflects the state of play for 2015 and 2016, as it is taken from IRS sheets for 2014 and 2015, with financial years ending across the year, for the institutions. One fascinating question is how think tank funding has evolved after the 2016 election. We will keep tracking budget data, and analyze future developments.

The data sheet is here. If you find it useful, we are grateful for a quick note via Email or Twitter.

Interested in think tank research? Try Find Policy, a tool in which you can search multiple think tanks in a single search window, giving you instant quality results:

[This item was cross-posted with On Think Tanks.]

A Debate Worth Having: Anonymity & Remaining Opacity

As think tanks, especially in the United States, have been putting more information online, their disclosure has invited scrutiny and public debate. In the last days there were several items, see Greg Sargent for the Washington Post and Dan Berman in the National Journal

We welcome the debate and attention to think tank funding. Greg Sargent quotes our statement on this debate in detail, and we are reposting it here once more: 

Transparify strongly welcomes the Center for American Progress' recent shift towards greater transparency. While we have not formally assessed and rated CAP's new disclosure level yet, it is clear that it represents a substantial improvement over CAP's previous level of disclosure. CAP's move reflects a broad and significant shift by the American think tank community as a whole towards greater transparency over the past year. 

Some commentators have highlighted the fact that CAP, like some other think tanks, has not disclosed the names of some of its donors. Transparify obviously encourages full disclosure, but at the same time realizes that large institutions in particular may need to take one step towards transparency at a time. CAP is definitely moving into the right direction. 

Should there be anonymous donors at all? As Transparify has documented, there are various sides to the debate. Some donors do not want to be named. While we prefer as much transparency as possible, our ratings at this point make allowance for up to 15% of donations being anonymous. The rationale is that sensible organizations typically will not risk their reputations for a small portion of their funding. This rule-of-thumb is not meant to settle the discussion on anonymous funding. It is intended to make it possible to have a constructive debate on such funding, in the first place.

Meanwhile, a small (and rapidly shrinking) minority of American think tanks continue to dig their heels in and refuse to open their books. It's understandable and legitimate that the public is focusing on the funding makeup of institutions who are opening their books.  However, in terms of research integrity, what is far more worrying is what is completely unknown -- the funding makeup of opaque think tanks. 

It's important to ask who is funding 3% of a more transparent think tank's operations. But it's even more important to ask opaque think tanks who do not disclose who their main donors are why they continue to keep their books closed while their peers are progressively disclosing more data.

[one typo amended from original statement]

We will soon be releasing our transparency rating of 150+ think tanks from around the world. To be notified, follow us on Facebook, sign up to our mailing list or follow us on Twitter

Think Tanks Are A Billion Dollar Business

A new data set compiled by Transparify shows that a group of 21 top U.S. think tanks broke the billion-dollar expenditure barrier in 2013, showing just how huge the sector has become.

The 21 think tanks in the sample collectively spent over one billion dollars in 2013, probably for the first time in history, and employed a total of 7,333 people, including part-time employees. Their total net assets grew 8% to USD 2.65 billion.

Many individual think tanks in the U.S. are larger than the entire sector in most other countries of the world. The median think tank in our sample had a revenue of USD 39m, expenditures of USD 32m, held assets worth USD 87m, and had 211 employees.

“America’s think tank sector is far bigger, and far more influential, than most people realize,” said Hans Gutbrod, Executive Director of Transparify. “This underlines the importance for think tanks to be transparent about who funds them, and for what purposes.”

Transparify put together the data to provide fellow researchers, funders and think tanks themselves with a comprehensive snapshot of one aspect of the sector. We would like to emphasize that the most important thing about a think tank is the integrity and quality of its research, not the size of its budget or staff. Therefore, the figures presented permit no conclusions about which think tank is “better” or “worse” than its peers – only which is bigger or smaller in size.

The narrative report and a separate data set in Excel format can be accessed from our publications page.

Please follow the On Think Tanks blog for more detailed analyses of the data presented here and to join in discussions of the findings. Also, follow us on Twitter or connect on Facebook to get notified of reactions by journalists, bloggers and assorted wonks.

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