Corporations and moneyed interests are not newcomers to the landscape of American politics: lobbying, after all, is a veritable American institution. But over the past two decades, special interests have found yet another home in the Washington Beltway: think tanks.
Historically regarded as bastions of independent public policy research, bridging the gap between policy and academia, think tanks have begun embracing a pay-to-play model, selling their institutional influence to the highest bidder. Free from any disclosure requirements, think tanks have begun to operate as unregistered lobbyists that offer interested parties low risk, high reward opportunities. The news is filled with stories of think tanks increasingly blurring the distinction between research and lobbying: from Microsoft and JP Morgan Chase providing Brookings with financial support in exchange for certain donation benefits to the UAE ambassador to the US donating $20 million to the MEI in order to “counter the more egregious misrepresentations about the [UAE].” On issues like these and hundreds of others, think tanks have demonstrably become megaphones for corporate and even foreign actors.
This second group of players is especially concerning for the preservation of our national politics. Foreign governments are often alarmingly specific with what they expect in exchange for their ostensibly altruistic contributions. Norway’s partnership with the Center for Global Development offers a particularly instructive example with the agreement explicitly articulating that for “$5 million, Norway’s partner in Washington 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.” Brawling with hundreds of other nations in the beltway for the slightest shred of influence, foreign actors have found a fresh solution in the think-tank world. Whereas lobbyists are transparent and thus easily dismissible, the credibility and anonymity that think tanks wield allow them to peddle foreign talking points with considerable ease and staying power.
Think tanks are undoubtedly responsible for this shift in their mission as institutions, but entrepreneurial think tank fellows themselves have begun to independently enter into the lucrative world of scholarly lobbying. These researchers hold roles at both think tanks and corporations, leveraging the former to serve the latter. Thus shielded and strengthened by their prestigious positions at various think tanks, these fellows write articles, meet with congressmen, and publish pieces within their roles at think tanks in full-fledged support of their clients’ interests. The problem is widespread: The New York Times recently found that “An examination of 75 think tanks found an array of researchers who had simultaneously worked as registered lobbyists, members of corporate boards or outside consultants in litigation and regulatory disputes, with only intermittent disclosure of their dual roles.” Unlike traditional lobbying, the work done by these individuals is far more surreptitious and thus infinitely more dangerous. Pieces written by think tank fellows, especially in newspapers and other media outlets, shape not only policymakers’ opinions, but also those of the public.
In spite of this sordid picture of think tanks’ behavior, they are likely not all to blame. There are two major of factors that have created the unfortunate conditions under which think tanks operate and adapt to today. The first is a tremendous explosion in the industry, which spreads out already limited funding across thousands of competitors. The University of Pennsylvania estimates there are now 6,846 think tanks operating worldwide. The second is that think tanks face a new competitor: consultants. Firms such as McKinsey or the Eurasia Group are steadily seizing greater market share as they perform equally rigorous analysis with greater speed and efficiency and no appearance of impropriety. This crowding out is further exacerbated by an administration that values the tenets of business over government, with the Washington Post explaining that “as the Trump White House searches for actionable foreign policy ideas … do not be surprised if they turn to McKinsey more than Brookings or the Council on Foreign Relations” potentially shaping, as a result, the rest of Washington’s preferences as well.
As the true scope of the partnerships between think tanks and corporations becomes increasingly clear, it should become apparent that this dubious synthesis of lobbying and academia requires some regulation. Establishing a more stringent regulatory environment similar to that currently required of lobbyists, including donor and donation transparency as well as mandatory written disclosure of potential conflicts of interest by individual think tank fellows, would go a long way towards repairing the reputation of the think-tank world and help, in part, to restore the wider problem of institutional corruption of American political culture.
Abhinav Ketineni is a sophomore in the SFS studying International Economics. His interests generally include emerging markets, game theory, and Middle East politics. Despite these lofty aims however, he ends up spending most of his time devouring fantasy fiction or programming late into the night