Beginning in the 1970s, public policy research institutions experienced explosive growth — today there are over 6,500 think tanks worldwide, with representation in virtually every country. The boom was driven and defined by globalization, the growth of civil society, an increasing complexity of policy issues and new demands for timely and concise analysis. In recent years, however, the surge has died down and the pace of think tank establishment has slowed. Now, think tanks face extinction unless they learn to innovate and adapt to a rapidly changing political economy.
While many factors have contributed to their decline, a shortage of money and the growth of an information-rich environment are arguably the most influential. Limited private and public funding for think tanks has resulted in more short-term, project-specific funding, rather than long term institutional support. Think tanks also face competition from advocacy organizations, for-profit consulting groups, law firms and electronic media for the attention of busy policymakers and an increasingly distracted public. In today’s environment anyone can be a think tank, at least virtually.
Traditional measures of impact and policy research are less relevant than ever, and the best mediums for reaching policymakers and the public are in a constant state of flux. This poses an existential challenge for think tanks — but also an incredible opportunity to increase the quality of their output and their ability to reach a larger audience.
Policymakers still require reliable, accessible and useful information on the mechanics of current policies and on the costs and consequences of possible alternatives. These needs have long been central to government decision-making, but now, more than ever, the forces of globalization require analytical insight to bridge the gap between research and actually implementing policy solutions.
Think tanks, however, still face an operating environment that is full of tensions and disruptions. To successfully navigate it, they must understand the threats and opportunities facing all knowledge-based organizations and adapt to meet the market’s new demands.
First, research must be timely and accessible in order to…