Do The Donors Behind Think Tanks Diminish Their Credibility?

Photo courtesy of DrWurm via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Foreign governments and other donors may be buying influence of American think tanks by donating millions — a revelation that sheds light on a disturbing lack of funding disclosure.

By definition, a think tank is an independent organization that performs research and advocacy on topics ranging from social policy, to economics, technology, military and more.

Most are nonprofit and dependent upon the funding of private donors and organizations, though funding sources vary. There are thousands of think tanks in the U.S. alone, and nearly 7,000 worldwide.

As with any organization in which opinion can influence work, it’s important to carefully measure the objectivity of the organization and asses their motivations — which some believe are inherently influenced by their collective ideology and that of their donors.

Here are some recent and recurring skepticisms when it comes to the credibility of think tanks.

Foreign governments buying influence

According to Harvard University’s Center for Ethics, only 12 percent of think tanks publicly disclose their funding — and even those didn’t name them all.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”uECCRHkn9PFEpemzf4LdniLw5XwfTVrS”]In recent years, more than a dozen Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars in donation from foreign governments, according to an investigation by the New York Times.

The think tanks that aren’t transparent about their relationships with other governments may actually violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires them to register with the Justice Department as “foreign agents” if the intention is to influence policy.

Levels of foreign involvement vary: some studies are simply funded by foreign donors with expectations attached; others see active involvement and oversight, the Times found.

Researchers were allegedly not allowed to take positions critical of their donor countries, and often pursued angles dictated by them. While this doesn’t make their information wholly untrustworthy, it does diminish credibility by not providing the full story.

Who is donating to who, and why? Here’s a quick rundown of the New York Times’ findings:

  • Norway’s government has donated millions to Washington think tanks ($24 million in the last four years), admitting in a 2013 internal report that funding think tanks is a way to “gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts.” Think tanks have allegedly pushed on the country’s behalf its enhanced role in NATO, promotion of its Arctic drilling plans, and recommendation of its climate policy.
  • Japan wants to improve its reputation. A longtime donor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the country donated over a million dollars in recent years in return for the advocacy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of Japan’s top priorities.
  • Qatar agreed to a $14.8 million four year donation to Brookings, as its single biggest foreign donor. According to several sources, criticism of the Qatari government was a no-go zone for academics.

Think Tank Watch has a record of the many responses to the Times investigation here.

Corporate and private donors push ideology

While foreign involvement in American Think Tanks may be disturbing, it is not entirely surprising — researchers need to get funding somewhere, after all. This somewhere is not only foreign governments, however — it’s also that of corporate and private donors.

Think tanks backed by corporations have been accused of purposefully (and misleadingly) disputing scientific research that hurts their cause. This has been said to be the case with the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which wrote off the ill-effects of secondhand smoke in the past, and has published several studies denouncing climate change in recent years.

Heartland, backed by tobacco companies then and oil companies now, may be an extreme case. But the greater issue, it seems, is that think tanks are often cited as objective, despite having biases that reflect those of their donors and researchers.

Other examples of partisan think tanks include the heavily right-leaning Heritage Foundation and the left-wing Center for American Progress.

The takeaway

As think tank research is cited often and depicted as a neutral source, it’s troubling to some that even the most non partisan of think tanks could be party to external agendas — especially considering their role in informing the media, politicians, and public.

Though think tanks have largely denied claims of pay-for-play influence, most seem to agree that more transparency is needed when it comes to funding, as is clarity of donations that may have strings attached.

The independent review agency Transparify, which measures the transparency of think tanks in an annual index, gave five stars to the Center for Global Development and the World Resources Institute for their excellent funding disclosure, and expect others to follow their lead by the time of their next report.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?


Jennifer Markert