Thoughts About Think Tanks: Are They Biased?
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.
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.
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Peterson Institute for International Economics, FNA Institute for International Economics
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI)
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.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Benjamin R. Jacobs
The JBG Companies
Richard A. Kimball Jr.
Chief Strategy Officer
Accretive Health Inc.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Philip H. Knight
Chairman and CEO
MGM Resorts International
Thomas C. Ramey
Liberty International, Liberty Mutual Group
Willett Advisors LLC
Co-Founder and Managing Director
Wenzi Capital Partner
Chief Executive Officer
WL Ross & Co. LLC
Chairman and CEO
Saban Capital Group, Inc.
Victoria P. Sant
The Summit Foundation
Leonard D. Schaeffer
Founding Chairman & CEO
Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Responsibility
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Amy W. Schulman
Leon Lowenstein Foundation
Andrew H. Tisch
Co-Chairman of the Board
Beatrice W. Welters
Founder and Co-Chairperson
John H. White Jr.
President and CEO
Tracy R. Wolstencroft
Heidrick and Struggles
IHS Cambridge Energry Research Associates
Founder and CEO
Hillhouse Capital Management
Daniel B. Zwirn
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?
Should the media tell you the known bias of a think tank when they quote them?
Should there be laws to make think tank funding more transparent?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Margaret Perrottet