Why do you want to set up a think tank?
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is: Why do you want to set up a think tank?
Usually, when trying to answer this question, people describe a specific policy or political, economic or social situation that they want to change or even a new direction they want their country (or the world in some cases) to take. This motivation is fundamental in determining why we want to set up a think tank – it will help address what the think tank will work on. (+)See the What? questions chapter Learn more
But we should also take a moment to reflect on deeper questions: Is a think tank the best way to achieve this? Do you have any other reasons for setting up a think tank?
In practice, there are many reasons and motivations for wanting to set up a think tank. They range from ideal and high-minded to more practical, mundane and selfish reasons.
You may wish to set up a think tank simply to raise your personal profile and get into politics in the future, and you think that a think tank is a better vehicle than a political publication, a consultancy or academia. You might be a university-based researcher who wants to start a think tank to earn a decent living as a researcher-cum-consultant, or you might want to be seen as an authoritative expert and gain public recognition in your field.
The motivations for wanting to set up a think tank are diverse and reflecting on them will help you clarify if there is something else that you seek (+)See the section Are you sure you want to set up a think tank in this chapter . Understanding your motivations for setting up a think tank will also help you figure out what kind of think tank you wish to create, what activities it will undertake, who will work in it, and more. Here is a list of helpful questions to ask yourself:
- What problem or problems do you want to address? Is it personal or professional? Does it relate to the political, economic or social context in your community, country or internationally?
- What do you want to achieve?
- Do you think that evidence-informed arguments are absolutely necessary to achieve these objectives?
- Can you achieve it through alternative means? (e.g. academia, advocacy, or with an existing organisation)
- Why is a think tank the best means to achieve it?
You may think that a think tank is better than an academic research department at addressing policy challenges head on. This is true. Think tanks are commonly policy focused whereas the incentives within academia tend to be in the opposite direction. But a regular op-ed in a national broadsheet might have the same impact in the short term and your university may be well placed to help you with that. You may also think that it will be easier to raise funding for your research through a think tank. This is also true. Think tanks tend to be charities and tend to attract the attention of political and development philanthropists. But a well-run consultancy may be able to raise enough overhead from projects to fund its own independent research.
Throughout this guide, we will be addressing these and other questions. Reflecting on them early on will make the whole process easier for you. The guide also addresses more practical and mundane issues, such as different business models or how to assemble your team. Boxes 4 – 9 present a collection of the motivations of several think tank founders:
Box 4. Changing the system. Orazio Belletini and Grupo Faro – Ecuador
“After working several years in the private sector, I decided to start a new phase of my professional life by working in a development NGO. There I learned to appreciate the contribution that civil society organisations (CSOs) make by generating ideas and creating opportunities for the most vulnerable groups of society. This experience also helped me recognise that the work of CSOs usually focuses on specific groups rather than on changing the system that allows the appearance of problems such as social exclusion and environmental degradation.
I decided then to promote the creation of an organisation that would focus on delivering innovative solutions for social problems. My idea was to create an organisation that promotes citizen participation and encourages public-private collaboration to change the rules of the game; an organisation that, as described by Ashoka (a network of social entrepreneurs I belong to), does not just teach a (wo)man to fish but reinvents the fishing industry. I became convinced that one of the best way to achieve this goal was by influencing public policy.”
Box 5. Combining the skills of likeminded people. Simonida Kacarska and the European Policy Institute – Macedonia
“In 2011, with several likeminded individuals with whom we shared the experiences of working on the EU accession of Macedonia, we founded a civil society organisation that grew into one of the leading think tanks in the country and in the region.
At the time of its founding, I was completing my PhD and was looking of a way to professionally combine the different skills and competences that I have gained both over my education and previous working experience. For example, I have insight from engaging with political reforms in societies that undergo transformations as a civil servant, researcher, and lecturer. The think tank position was such an opportunity.”
Box 6. Streamlining good ideas to the public sector. Nicolás Ducote and CIPPEC – Argentina
“I was convinced that in Argentina there were no institutions that were strongly and perseveringly dedicated to taking the best ideas in public policy and pushing them towards the political process. I was very interested in putting together people whom I was approaching, who had an interest in causes such as education or health, and who did not have a vehicle to take their ideas to the world of public policy. And so, together with my associates and friends I decided to create an institution that would support entrepreneurs who wanted to change the Argentinean reality and who worried about what was important: that the things they proposed got done.
For them to be able to accomplish that, they would be free from some administrative tasks in the institution; we told them, ‘come work at CIPPEC and we will help you get funding, we’ll take care of communications, administrative issues, etc.; you just do the best you can to have impact, to put together a good team and to insert your area of knowledge into others, because most problems are interdisciplinary’. That is how we began with the idea that this would serve as a platform for public or social entrepreneurs, to integrate public policies, and to do it with a very strong focus on implementation; not just producing papers, but having an impact on the decision-making process.”
Box 7. Putting issues on the table. Gilles Yabi and Wathi – Senegal
(On the decision to set up a think tank) “It is actually more about citizen engagement and a certain idea of what is important in one’s life than about my career. I thought there was no reason to wait for retirement age to start something I am excited about and to take risks. I first had the idea when I was a PhD student in France. I wanted to do something useful and original in the region, and a think tank in West Africa can still be original. The concept is new even to many highly educated people here, especially in the Francophone countries. What think tanks exist are largely concentrated in [Anglophone] Ghana and Nigeria.”
(On the motivation for setting up WATHI) “The states and the societies in the region have to change. The systems have to change: political, economic, and educational systems, as well as systems of values. I’m setting up a think tank with a large group of friends and contacts because we need to put some issues on the table, those which we believe are crucial for the future of West Africa in particular. WATHI is not a typical think tank built on in-house experts in specific fields. The goal is to create a participative think tank, one whose objective is not to produce big sophisticated reports but rather to act as a filter for available knowledge that is useful and share it as widely as possible to stimulate debate and reforms.”
Box 8. Generating research to understand current challenges. Gustav Brauckmeyer and Equilibrium CenDE – Peru
“Equilibrium CenDE was born out of the need to better understand both the Venezuelan migratory phenomenon and the challenge it presents for the region, as well as the challenges that arise in Venezuela in areas such as education, employment, entrepreneurship and civil society development. In general, there was a clear need to generate more research and data to understand these challenges, and that data could drive the debate and the creation of innovative solutions to face them.”
Box 9. Connecting academia with policy. Seyed Emamiam and GPTT – Iran
Seyed Sadegh Emamiam is the founder and director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT) in Iran. He was interviewed by Andrea Baertl in 2020.
“As a postdoc researcher, I spent more than a year in London to study think tanks there. I was involved with a few think tanks in London and I was very inspired by their work. They were not the same institutionally, they were not necessarily alike, but their functions were very important, and I was inspired by the idea. When I moved to Tehran in 2015, I found a necessity to expand our research institution towards the policy area, because it was a very active part of academia and was somewhat successful, but there was a disconnect between academia and policy. I found that we needed a bridge between academia and policymaking, and that was the main idea behind the GPTT.”
As you can see from the experiences of these founders, the reasons for establishing a think tank may vary in the way they are framed, but in general they all wanted to produce good quality research – with teams of likeminded people worried about society’s challenges – to provide good ideas to policymakers. In other words, they wanted to influence policies.
Why do think tanks aim to influence policy? (+)This section has been informed by these articles: Levine, R. ( 2018), The moral case for evidence in policymaking. Mendizabal, E. (2018), What’s new in our understanding of how evidence influences policy? A view from Latin America. Du Toit, A. (2012), Making sense of ‘evidence’: Notes on the discursive politics of research and pro-poor policymaking'. Working Paper 21. PLAAS, UWC: Bellville.
Any discussion about think tanks needs to consider the field of evidence-informed policy. The prominence and spread of evidence-based discourse (which we refer to as informed policy) saw a rise in popularity with New Labour in Britain in the late 1990s and has spread to multiple sectors across the developing world, first aided by the policies of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and later adopted by other prominent public and private international development agencies (Du Toit, 2012).
Informing policymaking with research-based evidence is important and commendable, but its underlying assumptions need to be considered (and dealt with). Du Toit (2012) critiques the evidence-based policy model and argues that it erroneously understands policymaking as a process that should only concern itself with instrumental rationality (what works), positing that policy decisions should be based on impartial, objective and rational assessment of available evidence (the right kind, or best kind) and devoid of any values. It thus assumes that there is a right way and wrong way to do something. But social science, and science more broadly, is not a neutral field. There are values involved in what evidence is produced and how, as well as how findings are communicated and to whom. Evidence-informed policy is a political terrain (Du Toit, 2012).
Academic studies of evidence-based policymaking suggest that policymaking can never be ‘evidence-based’; rather, policy can only be strongly evidence-informed if its advocates act effectively (Cairney 2016). Du Toit (2012) goes on to argue that while research findings are important, ‘we need to look at how policy narratives work with it; how it is used; and how it is alternately marginalised or seized on, ignored or imbued with significance’. This is a key role that think tanks can play: the combination of providing evidence and developing a coherent and adequate analysis of social processes.
The development of public policies is an area that by its nature requires the mobilisation of a variety of knowledge types, and the purpose of promoting this approach is not to reduce the policy process to a scientific problem-solving exercise. Recognition of these realities has led to a language shift towards the use of ‘evidence-informed’ (instead of ‘evidence-based’) when referring to policy making.
Generally, the growing literature agrees that when it comes to influencing policy, scientific evidence:
- Will never be more than one of the inputs to the policy process – alongside ethical, fiscal, political, and other considerations, and therefore it is not the only source of information that a policy analyst needs to consider.
- Does not necessarily need to be derived from experimental methods to be considered a valid input for policymaking.
- Always carries a certain degree of uncertainty, whether on the conclusions of a study or on how to interpret results and adapt them to a different context.
Box 10. Toolkit for knowledge translation
This toolkit presents an overview of knowledge translation and how to bridge the ‘know–do’ gap between research, policy, practice and people. It also provides resources to encourage and enable evidence-informed decision-making.
Bennett, G. and Jessani, N. (2011), The knowledge translation toolkit: Bridging the know–do gap: A resource for researchers. IDRC. Open Access Book.
Box 11. The role of think tanks in developing societies
Gurucharan G, director at the Public Affairs Centre (PAC) in India was interviewed by Annapoorna Ravichander in 2018. Read the full interview here.
“Think tanks have an important role in any society, but this role is sharply enhanced in developing societies. In essence, a think tank must do three things at all times:
- speak truth to power,
- give voice to the community to hold the state to account, and
- help improve the quality of governance for better development outcomes.”
But why do we do this? Why do think tanks and policy research centres embark along this road? Ruth Levine has asked herself the same question and resolved that ‘no field can be sustained and advanced unless it confronts and articulates its moral core’ (Levine, 2018). So, what are some of the moral ideas behind evidence-informed policy making and the missions of think tanks?
1. The pursuit of truth: research is ultimately about trying to discover the truth about what is being studied. The truths uncovered might be specific or even small, but they aspire to be truthful (Levine, 2018).
2. Distributive justice: think tanks aim for their research and recommendations to ensure the fair allocation of resources (Levine, 2018). There are always trade-offs to be made, and the research that think tanks do helps untangle them. Organisations might have different definitions of what fair distribution is, but they still strive towards their individual visions.
3. Visibility and the representation of different voices: as Levine (2018) states ‘if it weren’t for efforts to collect the same type of information from each and every individual – or at least a representative sample of each and every type of individual – what would we know? We would only know about the lives, livelihoods, and opinions of the people who have the greatest access to the public square’. Thus, the research that think tanks carry out, in a way, ensures that many voices are heard in the debate and provides a deeper understanding of the realities of different groups. Examples of these groups range from manufacturers and their employees, who stand to lose from a new trade deal, to subsistence farmers in remote rural areas, who are affected by climate change. By studying groups like these, think tanks can help ensure that the public debate represents their specific needs.
Are you sure you want to establish a think tank?
After reflecting on your motivations and a brief discussion about how to define think tanks: are you still sure that you want to create a new think tank?
There are other things you can do, depending on your objectives. You could create a blog to share your ideas more widely. Maybe launch a consultancy, if you are looking for something lucrative. Alternatively, if you find yourself more interested in political commentary you could focus on writing op-eds. Or maybe you would like to go down an academic path. Or you may want to be more active and mobilise others to act on a specific subject, in that case you could start an interest group and/or become an activist, and could even run for office or apply for a civil service job.
Regardless of the choice you make you can still find inspiration in this guide and on the On Think Tanks website. For example, you can find inspiration on how to communicate better (see the section How will it communicate? in this guide, or our online articles on communications and impact); how to improve the governance and management of policy research organisations (see the section Who will govern it? or our articles on governance); or about research quality and credibility (see the section How will it ensure its credibility? or see these articles). We invite you to explore and use this tool in any way that suits your needs and aims.