Think Tank Trouble?

University-affiliated research centers face a fight for funding and an assault on experts, but few think institutions will be able to resist future ventures.

December 12, 2016
 
University of South Florida
The University of South Florida decided to close a think tank in November.

In November, the University of South Florida decided to shutter a five-year-old think tank focused on global civil society and conflict, a tacit admission that the venture had been unable to find its voice or a sustainable financial base despite receiving millions in grant funding.

The closure wasn’t the best look for an institution with aspirations of growing into a widely known global research university. A local television station report slammed the think tank for its spending habits and alleged lack of direction. The harsh spotlight came at a time when the future of think tanks seems in many ways perilous, with global populism rising and voters widely believed to have rejected expert opinion over the course of this year’s U.S. election.

Despite the apparent pressure, the South Florida dean charged with overseeing the think tank voices no regret for trying to establish a center of authority in an area where he saw a vacuum. That dean, Eric Eisenberg of the College of Arts and Sciences, says he’ll move to set up similar ventures in the future. In fact, he’s currently trying to establish one focused on Latin America.

Eisenberg is likely not alone. Most who study think tanks believe they will continue to receive plenty of interest at universities in the future. Establishing think tanks gives universities a shot of visibility, the ability to sell students on gaining experience as they study and a chance to recruit top faculty members -- including those who may be more skilled at op-eds than books and who may be more visible on television than in the classroom. Think tanks also represent potentially new sources of cash at a time when funding for higher education is uneven.

The think tank idea might even be a way forward for universities besieged by charges of elitism. American think tanks have in the past proliferated at times of social upheaval and when traditional sources of expertise have been called into question.

It can be difficult to discuss the future of university-affiliated think tanks, because the term is broad and administrators often don’t like it. Generally, think tanks are organizations focused on researching and analyzing public policy. They can cover domestic issues, international issues or both and are typically seen as providing information to policy makers or the public. The broader think tank world includes well-known independent organizations often called “universities without students,” like the Brookings Institution or countless others in Washington, D.C. But a surprisingly large chunk is made up of university-affiliated think tanks, often labeled research centers.

Eisenberg at South Florida prefers the term research center to think tank. Whatever they’re called, he explains his continued interest in the organizations by pointing out that they’re often seen as relevant beyond university borders.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this kind of work, so long as it’s not an isolated think tank,” Eisenberg said. “As long as the public feels that the work actually makes a real difference in the world, I think these centers can be really positive.”

They are not, however, always successful. South Florida launched the Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict, directed by sociology professor David Jacobson, in 2011. The center was intended to study civil conflict around the world and find ways to build “robust communities.” In a welcome note on the initiative’s former website, Jacobson tied the think tank’s existence to civil society fraying under pressures from globalization and regional trends.

The initiative at one point had as many as nine people on its payroll. It was in talks to work with the government of Afghanistan to help build civil society and reduce violence in the country.

But then the political climate in Afghanistan changed, according to Eisenberg. The deal fell apart, closing off an important direction for Global Initiative work and removing a key source of potential future funding.

Then in 2015 and 2016, the university received complaints alleging financial mismanagement, improper spending practices and unauthorized travel at the Global Initiative, which was funded primarily through more than $2 million in federal grants. A university audit and compliance committee investigated and found the complaints unsubstantiated. But last month, leaders decided to shutter the center, which had dwindled to just two faculty members, including founder Jacobson.

Jacobson wrote in an email that the Global Initiative and South Florida performed “unusual and in many respects unparalleled work” on the causes of violence, means for reducing violence and the factors that make productive, cooperative social institutions. He argued the research is urgently needed for international relations and humanitarian reasons. And he listed Global Initiative accomplishments including a first-of-its-kind tribalism index -- a predictor of religiously motivated violence -- and an extensive social and political data set on the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

“We held numerous seminars and workshops, many in collaboration with government agencies and other universities,” Jacobson wrote. “We trained USF student interns, graduate students and postdocs so a new generation of researchers can address the social and political problems that confront us.”

Jacobson and another faculty member who were still at the initiative are remaining with the university. Jacobson will continue his work within the department of sociology. But after several years, it became clear the timing was wrong for the research center, according to Eisenberg.

“I was disappointed to have to close it,” Eisenberg said. “As dean what I try to do -- I’ve been dean for eight years -- I try to identify sort of global challenges in the country and the world, and I try to see whether there are talented faculty that can map onto this. The research that goes on in departments is fantastic, but sometimes I take a chance and try to elevate it.”

Eisenberg was up front about another fact that money played a role in the decisions he made. Money from grants, contracts and negotiations didn’t materialize.

“I decided to stop trying to make it work as a self-sustaining research center,” he said. “The idea behind these soft-money centers that are not really state supported is that they can really expand and shrink with the funding. But you have to achieve some sort of baseline funding to make them a viable thing.”

Money on the Line

The allure of funding is one reason many believe universities will continue to pursue think tanks. Simply put, think tanks have a chance to raise money from corporations, private donors or government grants that might otherwise be unavailable.

Look at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy for an example of a successful high-profile think tank that’s essentially financially self-sustaining. Founded in 1993 at the private research university in Houston, the Baker Institute today lists research programs in energy, health, conflict resolution, Latin America, China studies, science and technology, and tax and expenditures. Although its namesake, James A. Baker III, was an official in the administrations of Presidents Ford, Reagan and George H. W. Bush, it lists itself as nonpartisan.

The institute’s annual budget comes in between $8 million and $9 million, with just $350,000 or so coming from Rice University funds. About half of that budget comes from a dedicated endowment of more than $100 million, according to Edward P. Djerejian, its director and a former U.S. ambassador and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Those budget levels might look like chump change compared to Rice University’s $617 million operating budget and $5.3 billion endowment. But the Baker Institute is generating its own cash flow even as it brings visibility to Rice and contributes to the university’s educational operations.

“It’s like running a small or medium enterprise,” Djerejian said. “We’re an integral part of Rice University. I report to the president and provost directly. I teach. My fellows teach.”

Much of the institute’s funding comes from individual local donors, according to Djerejian. It also has corporate donors and seeks grants from foundations and the government.

Djerejian has seen no drop in available funding lately. The Houston community supports the Baker Institute because its members are hungry for public policy advice and guidance, he believes.

“There’s more wind at our back than headwinds,” he said.

Most university-affiliated think tanks, including new ones, won’t look like the Baker institute, of course. The think tank at Rice scores highly in rankings of think tank and carries the weight of high-profile former government officials. It has the benefit of being located in a Houston region that can draw on deep financial resources from the energy sector and is housed at Rice, a highly respected research university. It’s also managed to carve out a niche even though it’s outside the policy-dense region around the nation’s capital.

Think tanks that are seen as having expertise and providing reliable analysis on important topics will continue to succeed, Djerejian believes. Still, he acknowledges that the world is changing, and think tanks will have to change, too.

“Think tanks that are worth their salt and have an objective reputation will play an even more important role,” he said. “But I have no illusions about that. We have to be very active. You can’t just sit back and publish. You’ve got to disseminate your views in an intelligent way.”

Competition and the Challenge of Being Heard

In today’s crowded media environment, think tanks face a huge hurdle as they try to elevate their research above the fray of around-the-clock electronic news sources. Another challenge they face is greater competition from consultants, law firms and advocacy organizations. They also increasingly have to raise money from private donors who are focused on funding short-term, specific projects instead of making the broad donations for general operations that organizations need most, according to the 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, the latest version of an annual report from the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, which is known widely as the think tanks’ think tank.

The report, released in February, tallied 1,931 think tanks in North America and another 1,770 in Europe. More than half of those think tanks were university affiliated. Within the United States, the number of think tanks has more than doubled since 1980.

But the rate of think-tank establishment has slowed over the last dozen years in the United States and Europe. The report counted 1,989 in North America in 2014. The slowdown is likely due to the challenges like increased competition, said James G. McGann, senior lecturer of international studies and the director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program.

“There has been, I would say, since 2008, a decline globally and also in the United States, in the rate of establishment,” McGann said. “The absolute number of think tanks has not declined. It’s just that the rate of establishment has slowed.”

If growth in university-affiliated think tanks is occurring, it’s in those that are policy oriented, McGann said. That has them increasingly competing for the same dollars as nonuniversity think tanks and could lead to consolidation within the sector. An important question to watch is how university-related think tanks will compete against other think tanks that may be better connected to politicians. The shelf life of some think tanks could also shorten as information moves more quickly amid globalization and advances in technology.

Over all, funding for university-affiliated think tanks is unlikely to grow, said McGann. Those that are innovative and of high quality will likely endure.

The surge in antielitism and counterfactualism that crystallized during the 2016 election also represents a major challenge for think tanks. But with good management, it’s an opportunity to become more relevant, McGann said. Major domestic and international upheavals are correlated with the creation of new institutions, McGann said.

“That’s an opportunity that will need to be filled in part by universities and think tanks,” McGann said. “But they have to understand the changing dynamic.”

The changing dynamic includes attacks on the integrity of think tanks themselves. They’ve recently faced withering criticism for being influenced by the interest of the corporations and the donors who fund them, notably in a series of articles published in The New York Times in August. The articles examined the way think tank scholars advocate for donors' agendas and sometimes fail to disclose corporate roles they hold, contributing to corporate influence in government. The series focused on independent think tanks but reflects larger skepticism about the interaction between money and research.

Interest Remains

Even with the challenges, many believe universities will keep up their interest in new think tanks. It’s not just about finance and visibility. It’s also about recruitment and retention, said Thomas Medvetz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Think Tanks in America, a book examining the emergence of the policy analysis, advice and rhetoric industry in the United States over the last 100 years.

“It’s like that question -- what do you give someone who has everything already?” Medvetz said. “What do you give a professor who already has tenure? You can basically say, ‘Here’s a center for you to run.’”

Medvetz argues the broader think tank world exploded in recent decades in the United States as conservative activists searched for new voices oriented against liberal technocrats. Even if the current climate of anti-intellectualism is a challenge, he believes think tanks will find a way forward.

“Think tanks are like boomerangs,” he said. “They always come back.”

For universities, think tanks also represent ways to broadcast their work and make it accessible, said Donald E. Abelson, a professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario. Abelson’s research focuses on think tanks.

Donors and the public are putting more pressure on researchers to show the fruits of their labor, Abelson said. Think tanks help universities show that their social science research is relevant.

And think tanks can actually be of benefit when it comes to recruiting students. Student preferences are in many ways forcing universities to change the way they deliver education. The chance to work at a university-affiliated think tank can make students take another look at a university in a time when there is more emphasis on experiential learning and internships.

Those circumstances will lead to more interest in university-affiliated think tanks, Abelson said. But he was quick to point out that they come with drawbacks on campus.

Many faculty members don’t always like think tanks -- they may be more interested in publishing peer-reviewed articles needed for tenure than policy briefs for politicians or public consumption. They also might see think tanks as eating into existing department budgets, taking interest away from traditional academic structures or undermining the work of researchers not affiliated with think tanks.

“You get into university politics,” Abelson said.

Starting think tanks can take a bigger commitment than administrators believe. Presidents like the glamour that comes with starting a new center and hiring big names to staff it, Abelson said. But they don’t always put the proper resources in place to build over time and compete for funding.

“It’s not difficult to create these institutes,” Abelson said. “Most universities in the United States and Canada and beyond have a large inventory of people who are qualified to undertake this kind of work. The problem is, how do you sustain it?”

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