THE BLOG
09/10/2014 11:42 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Fund a Think Tank, Buy a Lobbyist?

Beltway policy wonks of all stripes are in a flurry after the New York Times published an article last Sunday alleging that foreign governments "buy influence" by funding U.S. think tanks. The article strongly suggested that some of Washington's most influential think tanks may have strayed from advocating policy positions that are based on independent research, instead venturing into partisan lobbying on behalf of their foreign funders, and in doing so possibly violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

To me, these allegations did not come as a great surprise, not least because similar red flags have been raised in the past. Transparify, the initiative I work for, rated the financial transparency of 35 leading U.S. think tanks earlier this year. We found that only ten of these research institutions were transparent about who funds them. Two prominent think tanks disclosed no information whatsoever on who funds them, let alone for what purposes. The opacity of the majority of think tanks about where they get their money from naturally fuels suspicions about hidden agendas, and sadly undermines the credibility of the sector as a whole.

Think tanks are important players in U.S. democratic politics. By undertaking and communicating independent research, they can inform public debates and improve decision-making on policy, including on foreign policy. Conducting quality research costs money, and inevitably, journalists and other observers will sometimes raise questions about whether the policy recommendations coming out of such research were shaped by funders' agendas -- regardless of whether such funders are foundations, corporations, trade unions, or foreign governments. Seen this way, it is no surprise that journalists and regulators have long struggled to determine where policy wonking ends and lobbying begins, especially as sponsoring think tanks seems to have become a standard tactic for lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Policy makers, funders and think tanks themselves should positively welcome such scrutiny -- it's part and parcel of the democratic process, and a useful corrective against some journalists' tendency to uncritically quote findings by any entity that uses or abuses the think tank label, including fake think tanks set up by professional lobbyists, or to overlook some policy wonks' glaring conflicts of interest. (Somewhat ironically, the day after the New York Times alerted its readers to the risk posed by foreign funding of U.S. think tanks, it published an op-ed clearly intended to influence American foreign policy that was co-authored by a fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a highly opaque research institution that refuses to reveal where its money comes from.) At the same time, it is incredibly important to realize that accepting funding and compromising intellectual independence are not one and the same thing. But how can the public tell when the line has been crossed?

For us, the answer is clear. Financial transparency is a necessary precondition for keeping think tanks accountable to the twin ideals of intellectual integrity and democratic politics. Only when we know who is funding whom, with how much, and for what research projects, can we begin to ask other important questions, such as which mechanisms and firewalls think tanks have put in place to ensure that their scholars are insulated from outside pressures, and whether these mechanisms are working well in practice.

The good news is that think tanks themselves are waking up to the threat that opacity is posing to their credibility. In early 2014, seven major U.S. think tanks told us that they were planning to put more information online before the year is over, and several others since then have signalled that they too are getting ready to walk the transparency talk. In December 2014, Transparify will start re-assessing all institutions we rated earlier this year, allowing us to track and precisely quantify this shift towards greater transparency.

The debate about think tanks' intellectual independence is only just beginning, and many serious research outfits are getting ready to open their books and engage in a constructive dialogue with their critics. For example, over the last few days alone, the Peterson Institute has placed additional information on its funders online, and the New York Times article has sparked a very thoughtful response and an excellent analysis of the issues at stake.

The key words here are debate and dialogue. Before we all begin casting stones, let's remember that most self-respecting think tanks, most of the time, have absolutely nothing to hide, and that they too realize that their impact on policy hinges on their credibility as independent sources of research and policy advice.