Monday, September 12, 2005

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What's the value-added of think tanks?

There's another international relations blogger out there -- R.J. Rummel, one of the godfathers of quantitative research in international relations. Rummel is also a persistent and oft-published voice arguing for the monadic version of the democratic peace -- in other words, it's not merely that democracies don't fight each other, but that democracies are generally less war-prone than other states. [How much evidence is there for this version of the democratic peace?--ed. Rummel -- as well as Paul Huth -- have generated some interesting findings, but it's not the majority position of the field, and there are a lot of studies out there arguing that Rummel is wrong.]

Rummel is also a libertarian and therefore one would expect him to be sympathetic to Cato's latest study on economic freedom and conflict. However, he is far from keen on the study -- go check out his scathing assessment of the Cato report. He closes with this assessment of Cato: "After reviewing the one study on what I know something about and finding it so poor, it provokes a questioning of their other studies in areas I know less about."

Without signing on to all of Rummel's critique, it opens the door to a larger question about the value-added of think tanks. This past Friday I was at a meeting in DC on how academics can better transmit foreign policy-relevant ideas to those in the government. One obvious transmission belt is think tanks -- the experts who staff these institutions can consume academic research and then generate more policy-specific research based in part on that more abstract research.

However, several participants enmeshed in the think tank culture argued that this wasn't the direction thik tanks were going. Instead, several of them -- and Heritage, Cato and the Center for American Progress were the leading examples -- had switched their focus from churning out deep policy proposals in favor of op-eds. Indeed, the staffing at many think tanks had shifted, with the communications and PR sides receiving a much larger share of the pie relative to the policy wonks.

Anyone who knows anything about organizations recognizes that all bureaucracies like to use quantifiable metrics, and surely op-eds would be one example. And it would be insane to argue that think tanks should forswear the op-ed. But the overall point was that the cost of this change in direction for think tanks was fewer in-depth monographs or books, and more output devoted to the 24-hour news cycle. Some would like this trend to accelerate -- one of Matt Yglesias' themes is that think tanks need to blog more.

There was no real discussion about whether this is something that can or should be fixed -- so I'll leave that to the commenters.

UPDATE: Yglesias e-mails the following:

For the record, what I had in mind was that blogging would be a good substitute for all the op-ed writing and press release releasing that think thanks do, not hoping that more blogging would crowd out more in-depth research.

On the general subject, my unsupported assertion would be that the shift in the wonk/hack balance isn't endogenous to the think tanks themselves but reflects the development of more disciplined political parties in congress. America's historically weak party system opened up an unusual amount of space for policy entrepreneurship that's being killed off as the congressional leadership has grown in importance.

posted by Dan on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM


"Think tanks" may have historically overstated (or over-estimated) their position of importance in the big scheme of policy making. The fact that the current trend in TTs is to opt for op-ed pieces and blogs may be a tacit ackowledgement of this notion. By going to the "24 hour new cycle" format they reach the general population in a way that in-depth studies and books may not be able to, for better or worse. Consider the blog or the op-ed the academic's answer to talk-radio in that if its powers are harnessed it can affect policy through popular demand.

posted by: Randy Hooper on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

The public has the capacity to appreciate soundbites but it does not have the capacity to appreciate substance. The incentives will always be great for policy institutes to cater to the publicís appetite for soundbites. If they donít, surely the (ideological) enemy will fill the void.

posted by: Aaron Chalfin on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

Thanks for this interesting discussion of the value of think tanks, including the suggestion that there may be a trend whereby "communications and PR sides receiving a much larger share of the pie relative to the policy wonks."

I am director of communications at the Center for Global Development, a small think tank that nonetheless produces the full range of outputs you discuss, from scholarly studies through blogs.

For us at CGD, it's crucial that we have both solid, peer-reviewed research AND effective tools for reaching (and hearing) policy makers. Blogs seem to be a perfect addition to our tool kit. My guess is that the think tanks that learn to use blogs well without foresaking their committment to solid research will be the ones that that gain influence and prosper.

posted by: Lawrence MacDonald on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

For Heritage, at least, your co-panelist's observation doesn't really hold. By all appearances, we are conducting and publishing more research now than at any time in the tank's history, and much of that increase is driven by our in-house data analysis shop.

Another datum: Heritage's standard policy paper for years has been the "Backgrounder," which ranges between 4 and 15 or so pages. (Some make it to 20, but very few.) A few years ago, Heritage created a new series of reports from our data analysis center that range from 10 to 25 pages. Just this year, we've had to create another series, "Special Reports," that, with one exception, start at 50 pages. This is in addition, of course, to the books that we regularly publish.

Bottom line: we're putting out more shorter materials, probably, but that's because we're putting out more of everything.

As for CAP, the couple policy papers of their that I've seen have been rehashed from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, sometimes with new tables and graphs tacked on.

Cato does seem to be putting out lengthier works less often, though they still do publish plenty. This may have to do with the Social Security push earlier this year--Cato had already published most of the extensive research that it planned to by the time the policy roll-out commenced.

posted by: Andrew Grossman on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

I won't defend all think tanks. Some hire distinguished scholars, others have been formed recently with the explicit purpose of advancing the interests of a political party. So there's a wide range. But I reject the suggestion of Dan Drezner -- and of Andrew Grossman -- that Cato is any way moving away from books and serious studies. We're not a university; our forte has always been more in the direction of translating academic works into a more accessible form. But our recent books such as "Water for Sale" and "Cowboy Capitalism" and "Saving Our Environment from Washington" are serious contributions to policy debate. Pat Michaels has a polemical style, but he's a top climatologist whose books present a cogent argument on global warming in a lively way. In the spring we'll publish an original book on constitutional history by Richard Epstein. Regulation and the Cato Supreme Court Review offer serious academic analysis, written in a style accessible to the serious layman, of the topics they cover. The next issue of the Cato Journal includes three Nobel laureates writing about economic development. Not Guilty.

posted by: David Boaz on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

As a Heritage Foundation research fellow, I find that think tank analysts - unlike most university scholars - put a premium on policy formation. So does the media, and so does Congress, but they have very different incentives. And who watches the watchmen? It is challenging enough to shame Congress away from its instinct for comfy incumbency, but harder still to puncture the myths of the MSM. And it would be nice if academic institutions took on that role, but they don't.

For example, the MSM continues to peddle the myth that enlistees in the Army are underprivileged. There are no facts to back this claim, but it goes out unchallenged simply because it was asserted and never disproven. Where are the academic studies on this one (or isn't that a tenurable topic, perhaps)? You see, there are holes in the academic community as well, and gaps on what it studies due to its own institutional limitations. But I can tell you that we are about to publish a major study on troop demographics, and guess what? The MSM is dead wrong. Not only is the Army not disproportionately underprivileged, it is in fact disproportionately overprivileged.

One way to think about think tanks is from the perspective of a young scholar who faces the choice: (1) academic career or (2) policy career. For me at least, I didn't have confidence that I would be happy at a university, especially since teaching well is not rewarded. And I have no interest in writing dry papers for dusty journals. I didn't have confidence that those institutions reward activism, and may even punish it. Dan should know this, given his musing about blogging and tenure.

It seems quite an error to hint that think tanks are hollow of genuine scholarship, when they seem to be rather inspiring as one of the few institutions where free inquiry is still rewarded. We shouldn't presume the academics own the moral high ground on thoughtful research. I mean, isn't it funny that Krugman - a brilliant scholar and hero of mine at one point - skewered policy scholars (entrepeneurs, he called them) in a book a few years ago, and now is one of the most intellectually dishonest ideologues in the arena?

posted by: Tim Kane on 09.12.05 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

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