When Think Tanks Stop Thinking for Themselves

“More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found.”

The New York Times published this exposé early in September, prompting many political bloggers to take to their platforms for debate. At the heart of the story is the question - is it right for think tanks, often understood to be the neutral information-and-advising pods of Washington politics, to receive money from foreign governments in such a way that it seems to influence the recommendations they bring forward? Is intellectual freedom under threat?

The NYT exposé revealed that foreign governments have provided financial support to some of the most prominent Washington think tanks - names like Brookings, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and others top the list. It is suggested in the article that growing competition in the United States for research funding (due to fewer grants from the U.S. government and more policy organizations in the ring) might be what drives think tanks to seek foreign financial backing.  

So, is it wrong? The thrust of the story as exposé leans towards a yes. The discovery of these partnerships through a significant amount of digging suggests these partnerships are not being spotlighted by the organizations themselves. Additionally, there are some live legal questions about whether some of these agreements violate a federal statute that requires groups paid by a foreign government for policy-influencing purposes register with the Department of Justice. Some of the think tanks who receive financial backing from foreign powers have not done so, presumably because up to this point they were not presumed to have the kind of “policy influencing purposes” the statute requires.

But truthfully, I don’t think we can answer the question, is it wrong? until we ask the question, what would make it wrong? In what way(s) is it wrong? First, there is a problem with the perception of think tanks versus their actual practices. As an expert in law and particularly the law regarding foreign lobbying, Joseph Sandler, told the Times, “It is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate… Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.”

Think tanks produce what we presume to be unbiased policy recommendations - ones that combines the research a scholar has done with his or her reasoning and interpretation of the meaning of that research for policy. While that kind of bias is acceptable, as the result of a person’s sincere reasoning, belief, conviction, the kind of bias that comes from a financial transaction with an interested party is different. The money here influences the think tank to produce scholarship with a bent towards, not the best policy, but the policy that suits the financial backer.

This kind of bias, when it comes from a source that we see as reliably unbiased, is dangerous. It is one thing when a lobbying firm presents arguments and evidence that seeks a particular policy outcome. It is another thing when a think tank, with a presumed and expected objectivity (seeking the best policy or the most workable policy based on the evidence) are discovered to have the same kinds of influences and motives as a lobbying firm.

If, as a policy maker, I regard the work of a particular organization - like Brookings or the CSIS - as compelling for my decisions because of its identity as a think tank, and therefore its supposed neutrality - and come to discover that the supposed neutrality is compromised, then my decision has been based on false information. Brookings might not have recommended this or that policy because it was best based on the evidence; it could be because it is in the best interests of the Norwegian government.

And whether or not, as the think tanks contend, this is just a coincidence, I am robbed as a policymaker of my confidence in just that. Saying, “It is just a coincidence that we receive this substantial financial support from an interested party and our research indicates adopting the policy they most support” does not remove doubt. Even if in some cases it is coincidence, I have no way of knowing when it is and when it isn’t. And that is problematic for the wise decision making of any governing body.

And this lack of confidence extends back to the researchers themselves, who are pressured, either indirectly or directly, to take lines of research and ask questions that move their scholarship in a direction that the foreign government favors. Now again, maybe that research really is beneficial for understanding Middle East policy. Maybe asking a particular question about trade agreements with Japan really does help the states of affairs in various Asian partner countries and global economic well-being. But there is no real way of being sure of the difference between these cases and the cases where the research is really just for the benefit of the funder.

Academic and intellectual freedom must require not only a freedom of coming to the conclusions based on reason, evidence, argumentation, etc., but also a freedom of choosing the kinds of questions one asks, and the lines of inquiry one pursues. When the confidence scholars and think tanks and policy makers have in this process is compromised, we have a significant problem.

There is a way to navigate the need for financial support in an ever-increasingly competitive research field and the need for intellectually free - that is, unbiased in the ways described above - policy research and recommendation. It’s time for us to start asking hard questions and to dive into the debate: do financially backed foreign interests belong in the American think tank world?