"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Monday, July 25, 2011

Inside the Idea Factory

Policy is manufactured, bought and sold, paid for, mostly, by those you would expect. Money and ideas go hand-in-hand. But, let's play devil's advocate. Really, what is so wrong with that?

While there are think tanks (and individual projects at think tanks) that lose money researching and promoting relatively unpopular and under-financed ideas, I find the following from here more often to be true:
"Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor's checkbook and are seldom publicized," notes Tom Brazaitis, writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet. Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds." So much money now flows in, that the top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the "soft money" contributions to the Republican party.
 All think tanks are really doing is providing products -- ideas and policies -- that their supporters demand. What's wrong, I repeat, with putting your money where your mouth is, or, as these things go, paying someone else to speak for you?

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Think tanks are like universities in some ways -- filled with clever, resourceful, ambitious people who care about ideas (and ideologies), but, again,
A think tank's resident experts carry titles such as "senior fellow" or "adjunct scholar," but this does not necessarily mean that they possess an academic degree in their area of claimed expertise. Outside funding can corrupt the integrity of academic institutions. The same corrupting influences affect think tanks, only more so.
Think tanks are like universities minus the students and minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought. Real academics are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is often reversed at most policy-driven think tanks.
I will say that it is absolutely possible for people to become experts on subjects they do not necessarily have academic degrees in -- and that's something all of my post-academic readers might keep in mind as they pursue other careers. You can have an active mind. You can think deep thoughts. You can even earn your living by thinking and writing. And you can do all this within the context of a "normal," nonacademic job that pays the bills - and more, if you are smart enough and driven enough. And there are certainly people here, people I work with every day and respect, who understand the subjects and policy issues they write about in great depth even though they don't have academic credentials affirming their expertise.

But there are also people, like the one I refer to in this little angry  post (whom I fortunately don't have to interact with regularly) who are where they are, doing what they are doing, because of their politics rather than any sort of in-depth knowledge of the issues underlying the policies they promote. Unlike the high complexity, low profile issues my office generally deals with (although tracing the money even here leads to very unsurprising conclusions), some issues are grossly distorted, misrepresented, and oversimplified. People with strong ideological  motives but little true expertise are easy targets and willing collaborators -- spokesbots, if you will -- for well-funded special interests.

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I'd be lying if I said there weren't also bipartisan collaborations and compromises that don't necessarily always please every donor. Libertarians and progressive environmentalists? Yes, such coalitions exist and differing parties are able to work well together. Both groups receive funding from so-called special interests and occasionally do find common  ground. But the question I leave readers with is this: Are all special interests equal? Are the "interests" of conservation groups or green industries that fund environmentalist think tanks -- whose "interests" at least in part are a greener world -- the same as the profit-driven "interests" of, say, a major insurance or oil company that funds a libertarian think tank?


  1. FWIW, here's Think Tank Boss's comment on this post, with identifying information removed, of, course:

    "Our conclusions are pretty much independent [of our donors]. Large Corporation A is our second biggest funder and one of our major efforts is an effort to undermine their biggest single national public policy objective which is creating National X Fund. Large Corporation B funded us until recently and we were at absolute loggerheads with them on Tax X. Large Corporation C, our largest funder, does not even come close to sharing my enthusiasm for A Particular Congressional Act that I’ve pushed hard. Large Corporation D, which I might have preferred not to have as a donor if we had unlimited money elsewhere, wants us to call for an end to Process X. We’ve instead pushed to fix it along lines that they don’t necessarily like. Bottom line: I don’t really know where others at Think Tank get their money but I’m pretty convinced that I’m (and everyone who works for me) is independent of our donors. Many of our rivals and allies get just as much from “big business” as we do. I’m sure, actually, that Major Environmental Group gets more from oil companies than Think Tank. A lot of important work, Coalition W for example, isn’t funded by anyone in particular but we just do out of overhead.

    "In terms of interests: not all interests are equal but all interests are self-serving. I tend to believe that people mostly make good decisions themselves and should mostly have the freedom to do what they want. I also think that efforts to plan things centrally tend to make things worse for just about everyone. At the same time, I understand that real market failures occur and need to be corrected. I don’t expect you to agree with my views and doing so isn’t a requirement for working here but I don’t think that I’m a slave to our donors."

  2. And here is my reply (this was an email exchange, BTW, but I think the differences of opinion expressed are important) with identifying information disguised):

    "I don't think you're a slave to the donors, but...it wouldn't really surprise anyone, either, that a free-market think tank that does work on Pink Cactus Issues is funded by large Pink Cactus companies. While every donor may not support everything you support, there must be enough common ground for them to continue giving money, right? Otherwise, they'd stop, like Super Pink Cactus. Even the proposals for funding, like the one to Premier Pink Cactus, outline 'our work that should interest Premier Pink Cactus.' Obviously, that's not the same as having Premier Pink Cactus come to us and say, 'We'll give you X amount of money if you support such-and-such a policy.' Then we'd be lobbyists and PR people, but there's only a very fine line to be drawn, which the funding proposals acknowledge, too: '[Quote left out because it cannot be properly disguised -- use your imagination].' While not promoting the interests of particular companies per se, to the extent that free-market policies benefit those companies, Think Tank is promoting their interests. And the same, no doubt, is true for a liberal organization like Major Environmental Group and its donors (I'd be really curious why oil companies are supporting them, but I don't actually know much about what they do -- so maybe I'm wrong to assume their interests are always and entirely green).

    "The post wasn't really a criticism so much as just a pointing-out-of-fact that seems equally true of liberal and conservative think tanks. Doing research to support an agenda, whether free-market or conservationist (or whatever) isn't the same as doing research to support inquiry. In the former, your conclusions are largely already drawn and you do research to support them; in the latter, you start with questions and draw conclusions only after you've done the research. I'm not saying one is better than the other but just that, given the amount of influence think tanks have on policy, it's a distinction people should keep in mind more often."

  3. Think Tank Boss replies via email:

    Our biggest donors overall, however, are foundations and individuals, not corporations. There certainly is some common ground but thats obviously so for all donors to anything. Major Environmental Group's interests are what they see as "green" and I think they are honest about it. They are supported by oil companies largely to do conservation work in areas where oil drilling takes place because it makes the companies look good and because some of the companies simply care about the environment.

    Here is my thought: there is no inherent vice or virtue to almost [any] given stated interest. Saying one wishes to "save the whales" and believing that sincerely does not make one "good" nor does saying one wishes to "make as much money as possible for the stockholders" bad. Looking to make money is a noble and worthwhile pursuit and often produces better results for society than trying to achieve some seemingly altruistic goal. Nobody, in my opinion, is a total altruist. Everybody undertakes every action for a wide mix of goals. Among other things, of course, everyone doing everything is in "business" and, at minimum, needs to take in enough money to cover its costs each year. This alone means that you need to do some good for someone who has money to keep doing anything whatsoever. I am motivated by some combination of a desire to advance good public policy, a desire to make money, a desire to be famous/important, and the rewards I get from building a project and creating jobs for other people.

    In terms of the ideologically driven think tank world (which is hugely overrated in terms of influence--all public policy magazines combined have a smaller circulation than Southern living and Id suspect that your Grad U. alone has more professors than all this area's think tanks have full time fellows put together.)

    I do believe that our research agenda in this office is at least as disinterested--and maybe more--than that of most college and university professors. We try to make our research relevant to policy questions rather than trying to publish it in peer reviewed journals. But we don't decide conclusions in advance: we know/believe certain things and apply them to our work. College professors are not disinterested ieither. The desire to get tenure, to play faculty politics, to be remembered in one's field, and to get an endowed chair (or other glory) plays a role in all academic decisions. What we do is not, of course, pure "basic research" for the sake of advancing knowledge but neither is writing textbooks, teaching most undergrad courses, or much of the applied research of various kinds that gets done on college campuses.

    One mistake by some ideological think tanks is to believe that a certain set of principles is always and everywhere true and want to apply them to public policy. If you do that, yes, you're being intellectually dishonest. But I don't believe that and wouldn't hire anyone who does. Do I think that minimally regulated free markets are better than central planning for doing most things most of the time? Yes. Can I think of cases where that isn't true? Yes. Lots of them in fact. National defense, law enforcement, transportation infrastructure, and education for sure. Health care in some respects.

    What we do is different from a university. But I don't think its worth less.

  4. And here's my reply, exchanged via email, to Think Tank Boss:

    You have a cynical view of what goes on at universities (as do I but for different reasons). To the extent that corporate "interests" have been increasingly driving "applied" research in science and engineering departments, I'd say those departments are becoming more like think tanks and less like what universities ought to be (but maybe have never perfectly been). Saying this isn't to diminish what think tanks do -- their purpose is different. But whether a physics professor studies superconductors or string theory should be determined by his or her own intellectual interests, not by the corporate interests behind the biggest grants. Superconductors may be more profitable in the short-term, but string theory could potentially change what we understand about how the universe works. That's where -- and I'm sure you disagree -- public funding becomes important, because, in theory at least, public funding serves everybody's interests, rather than the interests of private individuals or for-profit corporations. I agree that making money is a worthwhile pursuit, but I disagree that it's a noble one. At the same time, public or altruistic goals aren't necessarily noble, either, but they're also worthwhile -- maybe, pragmatically speaking, more worthwhile for more people.

    Self-interest involving recognition, promotion, etc. is sort of a moot point because it applies across the board. Sure, there's ego involved in peer-reviewed publishing, just as there is for you in getting your policy ideas advanced through various channels, but that's not the primary reason most academics do it. They do it because they think they have something original to say, and an editor and peer-review committee agree enough to publish it. There's no money in academic publishing, and it leads less and less frequently to promotion these days.

    Everything said, I might have to rethink my position entirely if, say, the meat-packing industry wanted to fund a professor position for me somewhere, the only catch being I had to publish an article deconstructing their industry's negative portrayal in The Jungle and find an innovative manner of teaching the book that addressed their interests more positively...

  5. Think Tank Boss replies:

    To the contrary, I agree 100 percent that there should be public sector support of basic scientific research and, to a limited extent, labor intensive or somehow nationally important humanities projects. Its the applied research funding with tax dollars that bothers me. To me, doing basic science ranks up with national defense as something the government should do and the private sector cannot.
    Public funding does not by its mere existance advance the public interest however. Most public science funding today is for applied research and, in most cases, applied research is very properly driven by what can make money. Even when the research is "good" its often very political. We subsidize breast cancer and sickle cell research very heavily because they are trendy diseases. Both are serious and researching them is worthwhile but I am not convinced it is MORE worthwhile than say other diseases that aren't as trendy or politically organized.

  6. And this is (I hope) my last reply in this exchange:

    Check out this link The Kept University