As a reflection of the First Amendment, think tanks and lobbying firms are a unique part of American society. The think-tank industry has been one of the fastest growing industries in the country, driving fierce competition of financial resources between corporations, other non-profit organizations and even foreign governments.
Almost all think tanks declare themselves non-profit, non-partisan organizations that conduct scholarly and independent research on a variety of topics, most of which are relevant to public policy. However, their independence has been questioned constantly because their financial resources are primarily from corporations and governments.
On Sunday, Sept. 7, The New York Times broke a story that many influential think tanks in Washington, D.C., receive great amounts of donations from foreign countries such as Norway, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. For example, the Center for Global development signed a $5 million agreement with the government of Norway that “would push top officials at the White House, at the Treasury Department and in Congress to double spending on a United States foreign aid program,” according to a Times staff writer.
Such activity sparked concerns among some lawmakers and lawyers. For one thing, lawmakers often rely on analyses from think tanks without understanding the ties between those organizations and foreign governments. For lawyers, think tanks do not have to disclose donors’ information and details of agreements, and might be very similar to that of a lobbying firm, or an advocacy group required to disclose details of agreements with donors. Some of their agreements are also suspected to violate federal laws that require groups accepting foreign money to register as foreign agents.
The line between a lobbying firm and a think tank could become blurry. Despite self-claiming nonpartisanship and independence, many think tanks are in fact doing the jobs that have the least conflict with the views of their donors. It’s no secret that think tanks accept donations from corporations. But corporations do not spend money on something that does not generate revenue, though not all revenue can be measured monetarily. Money put into the think tanks is in no comparison with that put into pure charity. Most of the time, it is a form of investment that is expected to have good results.
Besides the channel of financial resources, the mission of think tanks determines that they are not able to produce rigorous research as effectively as universities and other research organizations do. Think tanks’ audiences include lawmakers, public policy makers and the general public, and it is less likely for them to publish reports and papers that may need years of research and quantitative methods. Most of their work concerns public policy and legislature agenda, making it harder for scholars to spend necessary time on the topic because of time sensitivity. Many of their research projects and papers first introduce the topic and then reveal informative data shown as graphs, then jump to a conclusion based on the simple trend of the data they observe. But raw data itself hardly represents causal relationships between the objects being studied.
Without a scientific spirit, research could degrade into projects that are governed by subjective opinions or special interests, not to mention when there is a conflict of interest. When finding reliable sources to cite, lawmakers and the media should be aware that the value of work from a think tank is mostly informative rather than scientific. They should not be taken seriously in deciding public policy that reflects the views of the people.
The channel for foreign powers to influence Washington’s politics is always open, but think tanks should not become more like lobbying firms speaking out of special interest. Disclosing more information about foreign donors is urgent. Once the general public and lawmakers are informed of the ties between think tanks and donors, they will be in a better position to interpret and evaluate their research.