Thinking, not tanking

Heads up…

You may not know it, but you have your very own think tank. It’s that bowl on top of your neck, otherwise known as your head, which houses your thinking organ. That’s according to the origin of the term ‘think tank’ in 19th-century American slang. In the early 1930s Franklin Roosevelt set up a ‘Brain Trust’ to help with policy decisions, but ‘think tank’ took on its current meaning in the late 1940s, when US government and military planners conceded that they might need civilian expertise to assist with a range of advanced projects associated with the new threat of intercontinental warfare.

A special group was set up by the US Air Force for this purpose, and given a name based on the phrase ‘research and development’. The Rand Corporation, as it was called, went on to become the model for many contemporary think tanks – a not-for-profit, quasi-independent collection of experts and analysts, established to carry out research, develop new ideas, and promote policy solutions.

Think tanks soon proliferated, and started to gain wider awareness from the mid-1960s when the term began to appear in mainstream publications. They also began to diversify, in their activities and in their business models. Some became profit-making, often adopting the title ‘think tank laboratory’ or just ‘lab’ to characterise their value proposition. Others moved away from the supposed impartiality of the early model to campaign for social causes, or deliver front-end services, in addition to making policy recommendations.

Saved by the tank

By the early 1970s, when Paul Slee Smith published his study Think Tanks and Problem Solving, the various manifestations were seen as a vital corrective to the apparent inability of government, management, and organised labour to grapple with complex social and economic problems. From their “intellectual watch towers”, to use Slee Smith’s memorable phrase, think tanks sent out armies of “scholars, scientists, engineers and other experts” to rescue crisis-ridden societies which lacked the cognitive bandwidth to deal with the challenges they faced.

Yet think tanks have struggled to gain much traction with the general public. When I was head of communication at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) – a kind of precursor to modern think tanks, founded in 1754 – we were sometimes called a ‘think and do tank’, and on the occasions when we made it into the national media, we were just as likely to be called ‘boffins’. In fairness, it was quite difficult for tabloid journalists to articulate the history, purpose, and achievements of a 250-year-old multi-disciplinary organisation with a broad intellectual remit in a single sexy soundbite.

That’s hardly a deal breaker, though. As Martin Groenleer points out in his study of autonomy in European Union agencies, “few public organisations make the front pages of the newspapers”. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not delivering value or meeting their objectives, and their legitimacy is maintained by “the support [they] receive from the clientele that they are supposed to serve”.

Today, despite the much-reported opprobrium of a certain former education minister towards ‘experts’, a huge range of think tanks continues to flourish. They ply their trade globally, and show that they too can master the modern trivium of fundraising, audience engagement, and impact measurement. Close cooperation with universities and other centres of research is a common feature, and, perhaps inevitably, think tanks themselves have become the subject of study for… well, who else?… think tanks.

We’re on it

On Think Tanks is a think tank that studies think tanks. Try saying that after a few sloe gins. Founded by independent researcher Enrique Mendizabal, On Think Tanks’ international network of scholars and experts produces research, publications, and conferences. It recently put together a very useful series of articles on strengthening existing ties between think tanks and universities, with a particular focus on the role of such links in supporting locally-based research in developing countries.

In addition to working with education institutions, think tanks have also waded into the debates about education policy, from basic and pre-school through to further and higher. Examples such as the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute, or Hepi, or the Swiss-based Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training (NORRAG to the rest of us) abound. There are scores of centres of expertise worldwide focusing on education policy by connecting researchers, practitioners, and policy makers, and devising new approaches to the ongoing challenges of access, quality, assessment, funding, internationalisation, and so on.

Yet the debates remain debates. No consensus emerges on many of the central issues, no ‘silver bullet’ solutions have been found, and politics continues to trump policy (no pun intended). So the question is not only why do think tanks keep going, but why are new ones constantly springing up?

“The think tank is dead,” declared Michael Tanji in a 2015 polemic, “long live the think tank”. Proposing a Think Tank 2.0 model which prioritises virtual structures over bricks-and-mortar centres – despite the admitted advantages of a physical location close to the heart of government – Tanji claims that the more inclusive, more international possibilities of virtual collaboration could give the think tank proposition a new lease of life. Apart from anything else, he argues, “a virtual think tank can be at least an order of magnitude larger than any current think tank” – although, of course, size isn’t everything.

Put on your thinking cap

I recently participated in what can best be described as a ‘pop-up’ think tank; a group of people with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and professional networks, who came together to help an international children’s charity deal with the complexities of access to basic education in deprived locations. It was a ‘blended’ physical-virtual model too, with about twenty of us in a room in London joined by half as many again in remote locations. Expertly chaired, such a group can quickly contribute ideas, contacts, and other collateral to support the stated objective, before dissolving again into their respective backgrounds.

My friends at the RSA have come up with another approach. Concerned that the lack of citizen engagement with economic policy-making is a major problem, given the importance of economic policy in electoral decision making, the RSA set up a Citizens’ Economic Council. Billed as “a programme giving citizens a say on national economic policy”, the thought is that economics can be for the many, not just the few. That is, if the concepts are creatively explained, and democratic principles guide the process.

For think tanks, the future looks bright. New structures, locations, personnel, methodologies… there are endless possibilities that can be combined in different ways to further the aim of inventing new ideas for the future. And there is no shortage of problems for think tanks to deal with. As Paul Slee Smith said back in 1971, “Some present day problems are so complex, so difficult to define, so inextricably mixed up with other problems and involving such obscure interrelationships that clear cut solutions become impossible…” Plus ça change, eh?

By the way, folk singer and social activist Malvina Reynolds sings a marvellous ditty about the Rand Corporation. Who’s going to save us from Rand, she asks – not to mention all the other think tanks. Who, indeed?

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