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Definition: think tank from The Macquarie Dictionary

a group, usually of highly qualified specialists, dedicated to the solving of particular problems and the generating of productive ideas

Recognition of such obstacles has led governments to create ‘think tanks’ and to institute studies on alternative strategies. charles birch 1976

(plural think tanks)


Summary Article: Think Tanks from The SAGE Encyclopedia of Economics and Society

In times of economic and financial crises, climate change and environmental pollution, pandemic dangers, and numerous other problems of global reach, policy makers at the local, regional, national, and global levels need profound knowledge to make the right decisions to help shape a sustainable future. Because think tanks provide reliable and relevant information on different domestic and international issues and give advice about what can be done in the face of contemporary and future challenges, they have increasingly gained influence on public policy worldwide. A growing number of increasingly specialized think tanks address emerging challenges with their research activities. This entry discusses the concept and history of think tanks, the competences of these organizations, and the role they play in the policy process.

What Is a Think Tank?

The concept of think tanks can be defined in many different ways. Although think tanks receive growing attention in a variety of academic disciplines and in the public, there is no generally accepted theory of their political influence because think tanks are a fuzzy concept. Think tanks comprise a diverse set of organizations that vary in size, organizational structures, financial resources, ideologies, and specialization with regard to their research activities, making a consensus definition of the concept difficult.

In the most general sense, a think tank is a group of experts or an organization for research that identifies and analyzes complex problems and predicts or plans future developments. Sometimes also called a think factory, a think tank generates new ideas on a particular subject.

Roles for Think Tanks

Think tanks are especially common in political strategy, which is why they are often called policy research organizations. Their primary function is to identify relevant policy issues and generate policy-oriented research on these issues that can provide recommendations for policy makers. These recommendations should help policy makers understand and make informed decisions about public policy issues. Thus, think tanks bridge the gap between research and policy making because they provide knowledge and advice that is credible, relevant, accessible, and understandable. They are important actors in the policy process because they develop solutions to public policy problems.

Typical areas of research that are addressed by think tanks include international affairs, national defense, environment policy, international and domestic economy, and social policy planning.

Most think tanks issue reports on the problems they identify and analyze, which is why their influence exceeds the impact they have on policy making. Think tanks can shape public debates on key issues because they do not only center on the production of knowledge that contributes to finding solutions for policy problems; think tanks also have a focus on the dissemination of their research in reports, in journal articles, at conferences, and in interviews and address not only policy makers but also the public at large.

Think Tanks Are an Ambiguous Category

There are so-called comprehensive think tanks that are concerned with a broad range of policy issues. However, most think tanks are specialized nowadays, focusing on a single issue, such as global warming, or a particular field of public policy, for example, national security. These specialized think tanks are often called boutique think tanks.

Many definitions highlight that a think tank acts independently from the government, political parties, or interest groups. However, there are different types of think tanks with more or less autonomy. While academic think tanks attempt to be a neutral and objective source of ideas, political party think tanks depend on the related party with regard to their staff, agenda setting, and funding. Furthermore, many think tanks have close financial ties with the government, depending on government contracts for the revenues.

There is no clear-cut boundary between think tanks and similar organizations. For example, universities or research institutes may also produce knowledge that can be used in policy making. Moreover, the division between think tanks and lobbyist groups is disputed, with some scholars considering think tanks as special-interest groups having their own political agenda.

Think tanks are especially common in the United States, but they are increasingly becoming an integral part of the policy process in many countries around the world. Since there is no commonly accepted definition of what a think tank is; there are no accurate counts of think tanks. It is estimated that there are more than 1,500 think tanks in the United States, where the concept of think tanks also has its major historical roots. Estimations of the total number of think tanks in the world are that there are around 6,300 such organizations. Although most think tanks are still found in the industrialized countries in the North, there are also a growing number of these organizations in developing and transitional countries, where the financial support for think tanks is still very limited and their possibilities to influence policy making are often restricted. Think tanks in the United States are often referred to as organizations with significant independence, whereas many Asian, African, Latin American, and European think tanks are openly affiliated with governments or corporations.

Historical Development

The term think tank (sometimes also called think box) originally referred to the brain as the organ of thought. The expression was used colloquially in this sense from the end of the 19th century to the 1960s. During World War II, think tank referred to bug-proof rooms where expert planners discussed military strategies. In 1958, think tank first occurred in its current sense referring to a research organization when the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California, an offshoot of Stanford University, became known as the “think tank.” Although the term think tank had not been common in its current sense until the late 1950s, policy research organizations date back to the turn of the 20th century when organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were established in the United States. Think tanks specialized in foreign policy and military defense strategies, such as the RAND Corporation, which was established as a joint venture between the U.S. Air Force and a business corporation, became important in the United States during the era of the Cold War. Since the 1970s, the term has been used for a broad range of research institutions that do not necessarily focus on national security but on different economical, ecological, societal, and political issues. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the number of think tanks has grown exponentially, while their specialization has increased and their ideological orientation has become more obvious. In the first decade of the new millennium, global think tanks and global networks of think tanks focusing on issues of transnational significance have become increasingly important.

Today, think tanks are a growing part of political life in many countries, which makes them an interesting field of study. Although there is not yet a common understanding of what think tanks are, they are often believed to have significant influence on policy making, but their impact on policy and how they operate remains to be analyzed better.

See also Lobbyists; Policy Networks

Further Readings
  • Abelson, Donald E. Do Think Tanks Matter? McGill-Queen's University Press Montreal, 2002.
  • McGann, James G.; R. Kent Weaver. Think Tanks and Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action. Transaction New Brunswick NJ, 2000.
  • Rich, Andrew. Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge University Press Cambridge UK, 2005.
  • Sebastian Norck
    Copyright © 2015 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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