Think Tanks

A unique entity in the American political system, think tanks belong to the nonprofit sector, yet their primary objective is to influence public policy decisions.


think tank: an institute, corporation, or group organized for interdisciplinary research (as in technological and social problems)-called also think factory. (Webster Dictionary, 1959)

The role of the think tank in the landscape of the American political system is unique. Think tanks belong to the non-profit sector, yet influencing public policy decisions seems to be one of their main objectives and abilities. As implied in the Webster dictionary definition of 1959, think tanks were not created to perform policy advising, but over time this is the role they have adopted, especially with the advent of the advocacy think tank. The purpose of this essay is to briefly examine the historical transformation of the think tank, as well as look at some of the modern tools think tanks use to influence government decisions in both domestic and foreign policy.

Historic Roots

James Smith writes in The Idea Brokers that think tanks first emerged on the American scene after the civil war. These early research institutes specialized in social science. They were set up by foundations, corporations or private citizens with the goal of aiding the government in finding the most efficient policies for instituting reform. Among some of the earliest think tanks were the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, National Civic Federation, U.S. Industrial Commission, Russell Sage Foundation, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Although think tanks were influential during this time, their numbers were low. Furthermore, they remained distanced from the inner workings of the government intent on maintaining the purity of their non-partisan ivory tower.

The aftermath of World War II saw a significant increase in the numbers of think tanks. This increase has been seen as the result of two influences. First, the United States was no longer an isolationist, but a global power. Accordingly, the government apparatus expanded, and with this expansion came the greater need for policy advisors. Secondly, the nuclear threat of the Cold War stimulated the development of governmentally funded defense-policy think tanks. It was with such government contracts that think tanks like RAND Corporation and the Hudson Institute were set up.

During the 1960s the influence of think tanks increased even more. This was the age of what Smith calls the "action intellectual," or the "godchildren of the progressive era." The think tanks of this period seemed dedicated to the applied social sciences, such as statistics, economics and social experimentation. Think tanks were set up or were contracted to research social issues ranging from race relations to inflation and welfare reform. Much of the research done by these institutes was then applied in governmental legislation, including Medicare, Medicaid and the Economic Opportunity Act. This was possibly the period of greatest government and policy research institute cross-pollination.

The final change in the nature of think tanks, which brings us up to the present-day, may have come as a direct result of this heavy cross-pollination. Both liberal and conservative intellectuals began to see the benefits of influencing governmental decisions through applied policy research, as well as the danger of not doing so. As a result, specialized think tanks arose with a distinct emphasis on advocacy. Examples of this are the Institute for Policy Studies, the CATO Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Both Smith and Abelson see this shift, which began in the late 1970s, as a result of the increasingly prevalent ideological divide between the right and the left.

In an environment where think tanks had to aggressively compete to promote their ideas to policy makers. developing effective marketing techniques to influence decision-makers, rather than engaging in scholarly research, became the primary concern for many new think tanks. (Abelson 1995, 97)

Current Roles

Thus, the think tanks of today find themselves in an extremely competitive environment, a marketplace of ideas, and have therefore adopted many of the same strategies used by interest groups. They lobby in order to maintain their influence in the policy decision-making network.

Think tanks rely on various channels to increase their prominence among policy makers. The first and probably most influential channel think tanks use play out in presidential elections. Candidates often adopt a think tank's 'blueprint' on domestic and foreign policy as their own, or are greatly influenced by it in the policies they propose. This is evidenced by several of our recent presidents. Jimmy Carter had such a relationship with the Trilateral Commission. Ronald Reagan honed his ideas with the Heritage Foundation, and Bill Clinton was greatly aided by the Progressive Policy Institute.

A second channel of influence think tanks rely on is cross-fertilization. If a think tank's ideas greatly aid a presidential candidate, who then goes on to win the presidency, it is often the case that newly vacant administrative posts will be offered to think tank scholars. Additionally, think tank scholars may be asked to participate in White House advisory boards.

Furthermore, given the cyclical nature of governmental administrations, think tanks often become havens for former policy-makers during their party's off-season, or upon their retiring from duty. There are many instances of this mutually beneficial arrangement, which provides a good job for the former policy maker and clout and connections for the think tank. One key example of importance to foreign policy decisions is the State Department's "Diplomat in Residence" program, wherein diplomats take up residence in think tanks to write and research between assignments.

Aside from these examples of cross-fertilization, there are several other avenues think tanks pursue in their effort to influence policy makers, one of these is through lectures and seminars. Lectures and seminars are used in two ways. First, members of congress, the executive and staff are invited to these talks under the guise of social events and/or educational programs. This gives the think tank scholars a chance to showcase their ideas directly to decision-makers. Second, by lecturing to professional groups, academics and at large conferences, think tanks scholars raise the visibility of their institutions.

Visibility is the key to a fifth channel of influence upon which think tanks often rely—the media. By setting themselves up as experts, think tank scholars are in a prime position to appear as regular guests on television and radio news shows. Furthermore, in addition to their scholarly writings, these same researchers use newspapers to promote their ideas, often in op-ed form, to the general public. The exposure of think tank ideas to the greater public very much increases their standing among policy makers.

The final channel think tanks rely on to influence governmental decision makers is one that, as yet, has been best harnessed by the Heritage Foundation. They have specialized in rapid, short format responses to congressional queries, as well as a one-page "executive memoranda," which outlines, in their view, the important aspects of issues up for consideration on Capitol Hill.

The history of the think tank in America has changed greatly from its inception. The advent of the advocacy think tank has increased public awareness of the desire of think tanks to influence public policy. Think tanks have moved away from their non-partisan roots and, through the use of sophisticated channels of influence, are quickly becoming the academic versions of the interest group. This is not to say that the research that comes out of think tanks is anything but valid. However, it behooves the nonprofit scholar to be aware of the changed status of think tanks, as well as their influence on public policy decisions, to better understand the dangers and challenges that will face them in the future.

Related Terms:

Public policy, research institutes, advocacy, lobbying, interest groups.


Abelson, Donald E. American Think-Tanks and Their Role in US Foreign Policy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. New York: Penguin Books U.S.A., 1994.

Smith, James Allen. The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, c1991.

Stone, Diane. Capturing the Political Imagination: Think Tanks and the Policy Process. London; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1996.

Related Web Sites

Political Science Resources on the Web/Think Tanks

National Political Index: Political Think tanks

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.