Thoughts About Think Tanks: Are They Biased?

Updated on January 5, 2018
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What Is a Think Tank?

We've all heard of think tanks, but many people don't know exactly what think tanks do and what their influence is over public opinion and policies. A think tank is an organization that conducts research and attempts to influence public policy in many different areas including business and finance, economics, education, fiscal policy, defense, security, technology, science, foreign affairs, health and science and political strategy. There are think tanks all over the world, but the United States has by far the most – a whopping 1815 think tanks with 14.66 trillion dollars being poured into these idea factories. Think tanks have a huge influence over public opinion and policy – after all, that is what they are meant to do. Their work is constantly quoted by the media. Think tanks have so much influence that they have even been called a “shadow government”, and some have been implicated in conspiracy theories.

Source

Are Think Tanks Biased?

All think tanks promote themselves as being non-partisan, but beware – that doesn't mean that they are non-biased. Non-partisan simply means that they have no formally declared association with any political party, but they can still be quite biased. For example, the conservative Heritage Foundation states openly that it's “mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense”. Other well known think tanks such as the Brookings Institution claim to carry out independent research, implying that they are unbiased.

But are any think tanks really unbiased? According to Sourcewatch.org, most research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders. Many are non-profit orgnanizations funded by major foundations, businesses and private donations, some are funded directly by governments and special interest groups, and some are funded to do work on a specific particular mandate. In the article “You Gotta Serve Somebody: the author states that that think tanks are part of a political competition between interests and ideological groups because ideas about policy are weapons in that battle. This makes think tanks inherently political and non-independent.

Because of the enormous power and influence held by think tanks, the public needs to be made aware of any obvious bias of a think tank, and also the bias that is most likely occurring from the funding behind the think tank. However, many think tanks are tax-exempt 501(c) corporations, and as such do not have to divulge their funding sources. A Politico Article concerning this - “Strengthen Think Tank Accountability” - states that many think tanks are rife with ethical conflicts, and that think tanks should disclose their donors.

There have been complaints that when the media quotes a study or report from a think tank, they don't warn the viewer if the study is from a conservative or liberal organization. The truth is that if Fox news is quoting something, it's more than likely to be from a conservative think tank such as the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation. If MSNBC is quoting from a study it could well be from the liberal leaning Center for American Progress. I thought it might be useful to list the top 10 most influential think tanks as listed in the Global Go To Think Tank Report of 2011, along with their most commonly determined bias.


Think Tank
Bias
Brookings Institution
Centrist
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
Centrist
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Centrist
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Centrist/Conservative
Rand Corporation
Centrist/Conservative
Cato Institute
Libertarian/Conservative
Heritage Foundation
Conservative
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Centrist
Peterson Institute for International Economics, FNA Institute for International Economics
Centrist
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI)
Centrist
Source

A Closer Look Behind the Scenes

I noticed that many of the top 10 think tanks were considered centrist, but as I mentioned before, it should be questioned if any of them are truly unbiased, or if the funding behind the organization bends them in a particular direction. When I looked into the funding of the most influential think tank in the USA and in the world, the Brookings Institution, I found the Carnegie Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AT&T and Microsoft listed in the Annual Report as donors, but I don't think this is a full list. The web site states that “Generous individuals, foundations, leading corporations, and U.S. and foreign government agencies that share our commitment to quality, independence, and impact in public policy research and analysis support Brookings with financial contributions and intellectual engagement.”. Failing to find a full list of donors, I decided to take a look at who is in charge behind the scenes, which would be the management and the Board of Trustees. For management, you have Strobe Talbot serving as president. Talbot was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton Administration. But let's look at the board members, whose “role is to provide governance of the business and affairs of the Institution, approve the fields of scholarly investigation, and safeguard the independence of the Institution's work”.

Co-Chairman of the Board - John L. Thornton, former president and co-CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Co-Chairman of the board - David M. Rubenstein – The Carlyle Group - Note: The Carlyle Group has been the source of much controversy because of it's role in the Iraq war, and the connections to Bush Sr. “The Iron Triangle”, a book by Dan Briody, was written about the “secret World of the Carlyle Group”. Rubenstein is Listed as the 138th wealthiest man in the world by Forbes magazine in 2011. His Net worth 2.8 billion. He took the billionaire pledge.

Vice Chair - Glenn Hutchins – Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Silver Lake (A private investment firm)

Vice Chair - Suzanne Nora Johnson – The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.

Other board members include:

Shirley Ann Jackson Ph.D.
President
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
 
Benjamin R. Jacobs
Senior Advisor/Founder
The JBG Companies
 
Richard A. Kimball Jr.
Chief Strategy Officer
Accretive Health Inc.
 
Klaus Kleinfeld
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Alcoa, Inc.
 
Philip H. Knight
Chairman
Nike, Inc.
 
Nigel Morris
Managing Partner
QED Investors
 
James Murren
Chairman and CEO
MGM Resorts International
 
Thomas C. Ramey
Former Chairman
Liberty International, Liberty Mutual Group
 
Steven Rattner
Chairman
Willett Advisors LLC
 
Edgar Rios
Co-Founder and Managing Director
Wenzi Capital Partner
 
James Rogers
Chairman
Duke Energy
 
Wilbur Ross
Chief Executive Officer
WL Ross & Co. LLC
 
Haim Saban
Chairman and CEO
Saban Capital Group, Inc.
 
Victoria P. Sant
President
The Summit Foundation
 
Leonard D. Schaeffer
Founding Chairman & CEO
WellPoint
 
Peter Scher
Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Responsibility
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
 
Amy W. Schulman
 
Lynn Thoman
Co-President
Leon Lowenstein Foundation
 
Andrew H. Tisch
Co-Chairman of the Board
Loews Corporation
 
Beatrice W. Welters
Founder and Co-Chairperson
AnBryce Foundation
 
John H. White Jr.
President and CEO
Taco, Inc.
 
Tracy R. Wolstencroft
CEO
Heidrick and Struggles
 
Daniel Yergin
Vice-Chairman
IHS, Inc.
Founder
IHS Cambridge Energry Research Associates
 
Lei Zhang
Founder and CEO
Hillhouse Capital Management
 
Daniel B. Zwirn
Managing Partner
Zwirn Family Interests, LLC
 

Even though Brookings states that “The Board is composed of distinguished business executives, academics, former government officials and community leaders”, it seems to me that there is a glaring, hugely disproportionate number of business executives. This is not to say that Brookings does not do highly regarded work, or that they pander to those business interests. It is merely to point out that even the most highly respected, most influential think tank in the world needs to be closely looked at for some possible bias. It seems naïve to think otherwise.

So What Do You Think?

Is any think tank truly unbiased?

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Should the media tell you the known bias of a think tank when they quote them?

See results

Should there be laws to make think tank funding more transparent?

See results

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Margaret Perrottet

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      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        4 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Sanxuary - you bring up a great point about polls being biased, and I agree that the questions tend to point people in a certain direction. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such an interesting comment!

      • profile image

        Sanxuary 

        4 years ago

        I always find think tanks and polls to be bias. They always steer the questions on their terms to specify the answers they wish to give to the survey. We never participate in the surveys and seldom know who they even asked. A simple experiment of passing a question or a message around proves the point. Each person must copy the message and pass it on. At the end of the line the message is never the same. Even odder is breaking the surveyed into groups by sex, income, political affiliation and who knows what on a simple questionnaire. By the time the commander of the light brigade got the message it said conduct a suicide charge through three defensive lines and take out the cannons. No one could believe what happened next, not even the enemy and very few survived but they got the canons.

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        5 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Peggy W - Thanks so much for reading and for sharing. I agree that they should be more transparent with their funding.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        5 years ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Margaret.

        Very interesting subject! I agree with Au fait's comment completely. For every think tank conclusion there is an opposing think tank conclusion. People need to evaluate the different results and views before making up their mind. Some think tanks are probably (at least in the beginning) more well intentioned than others. As to the funding...it would be wonderful if that was more transparent. Up, useful, interesting votes and will share.

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        5 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Rajan jolly - Thanks so much for stopping by and reading this. I appreciate the votes and the share!

      • rajan jolly profile image

        Rajan Singh Jolly 

        5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

        Considering the fact that the think tanks are funded by an external agency it is bound to be biased. There is no getting away from it. Of course the public should be made aware of the people funding the think tank.

        Very interesting hub.

        Voted up, interesting and shared.

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        5 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Au fait - thanks so much for your astute comment, and it does seem that the guy with the gold makes the rules. Always glad to see you stop by - thanks for the votes and the share!

      • Au fait profile image

        C E Clark 

        5 years ago from North Texas

        This is a very instructive hub with information everyone should know.

        Personally, I don't think there is a living person that is not biased. Everyone is influenced by everything around them (whether they realize it or not), friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, media, and in some cases personal experience which is antidotal at best, but given a lot of weight by the person who experienced it just the same.

        You have to know that the guy with the gold makes the rules. Most people who want to keep their job and whatever lifestyle they've become accustomed to as a result of that job, will sing the company song on que (or the financier(s) of the think tank, in this case).

        Voted up, UI, and will share!

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        g-girl11, seems like most of the things that influence our opinions can be traced back to money these days. Thanks for reading!

      • g-girl11 profile image

        g-girl11 

        6 years ago

        I really appreciate the research you put into this hub and your "behind the scenes." When considering a think tank's conclusion, it probably (like so many other things) can be traced back to the money!

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        I agree with you, pagesvoice. I think that they should be required to reveal their funding. Thanks for commenting and voting.

      • pagesvoice profile image

        Dennis L. Page 

        6 years ago from New York/Pennsylvania border

        After reading your article and answering your questions, I voted this up, useful and interesting. I applaud your effort in laying out a great Hub for your readers. Personally, I do not believe so called think tanks should have a tax exempt status. Additionally, in order for the public to make informed decisions, we need to be given all the facts and that includes the hidden agendas behind think tanks.

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Thanks for the kind words and taking the time to comment, Gamerelated.

      • Gamerelated profile image

        Gamerelated 

        6 years ago from California

        mperrottet, I really like your Hub. I voted it up and as interesting. I particularly liked your title. I thought that it was a nice play on words. I also liked that you took that extra step to research the board members and what they did. In the end all Think Tanks and any institution for that matter have people that are a part of them. Those people are usually biased. I think it is logical to examine its people when examining the institution. Good work.

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Thanks for the feedback, Randy, and sorry you got banned from the forums.

      • Randy Godwin profile image

        Randy Godwin 

        6 years ago from Southern Georgia

        Hello mperrottet--Since I am banned from HP forums I thought I would answer your forum post here. You may delete this post if you like after reading it. Your hubs are well written but you may want to break the text blocks into smaller sections as it's easier on the eyes when reading on a monitor. Other than that, your hubs seem okay. Welcome to HubPages!

        SSSSS

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Thanks for taking the time to read through this, mecheshier.

      • mecheshier profile image

        mecheshier 

        6 years ago

        Wow, what a Hub. You really did your homework. This is an area I have yet to research. Thank you for sharing. Voted up for useful.

      • mperrottet profile imageAUTHOR

        Margaret Perrottet 

        6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

        Thanks, wrenfrost56 - it was interesting for me to write about it, since I didn't know that much about the subject until I delved into it.

      • wrenfrost56 profile image

        wrenfrost56 

        6 years ago from U.K.

        Really interesting and well written hub, a topic I have not come across on here before either, which is always a nice surprise for me as I like to learn new things. :)

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