Feb 052014

New Ways To Think About Think Tanks

How we classify think tanks is influenced largely by who we believe to be footing the bills. But, while it is true that some think tanks have powerful corporate and political masters, a new study published in the Canadian Review of Sociology challenges some widely held beliefs.

Many people believe, for instance, that think tanks are tools of an intertwined corporate and political elite. “The more powerful the sponsor, the more we would expect them to imprint the funding environment for think tanks,” explains author John McLevey of the University of Waterloo, in Think Tanks, Funding, and the Politics of Policy Knowledge in Canada. His study, however, gives evidence that the relationship between think tanks and larger corporate-political elites is more complex than this.

The majority of think tanks could never be called independent research organizations, he says, but they are not necessarily directly tied to corporate and political masters either. So, rather than thinking about them this way, we should acknowledge that their work is strongly shaped by the political and economic environment they have to operate in.

According to McLevey, the majority of think tanks with either strong corporate ties or strong political ties rely exclusively on local private funding which very often originates with Canadian corporations.

Further, some Canadian conservatives have accused environmentalist and left-wing think tanks of being supported by wealthy American elites, but the study reveals a different picture: Foreign money doesn’t go to environmentalist and left-leaning think tanks; instead, it tends to go a number of conservative think tanks. Still, that money is only a small portion of the money that these conservatives receive overall. In particular, The Fraser Institute gets more from international donors than most think tanks make overall, yet that’s only a small portion of their overall funding.

Another commonly held belief which the study examines is that think tanks represent a broad range of competing interest groups. According to the study, this assumption is largely unfounded. There is quite limited diversity among think tanks in Canada, and McLevey’s analysis makes it clear that the majority are neither tools of corporate-political donors nor representatives of numerous competing interest groups.

In recent years, the Conservative federal government has been systematically defunding or reducing financial support for many non-profit and scientific organizations, including think tanks. In fact, only 4 of the 30 Canadian think tanks analysed received funds from a combination of private donors and government sources.

“A more accurate assessment,” the report concludes, “would be that think tanks operate in an uncertain environment where they have to protect themselves from the changing passions of their sponsors.”

Access the McLevey study

See the latest issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology