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Think Tanks: Foundations and Research Institutes : A Primer on Think Tanks

Often referred to as public policy or research institutes, think tanks can be a good source for research on various topics, addressing real-world problems or concrete public policy issues.

Historical Overview of Think Tanks in the U.S.

The following entry on think tanks was written by Judith A. Barrett for the Encyclopedia of American Studies. It offers an informative introduction to the development of think tanks in the U.S.      


        The rise of a new American policy elite during the last half of the twentieth century spawned a proliferation of “think tanks” (research institutes affiliated with universities, businesses, independent nonprofit organizations and ideologically motivated interest groups). By the start of the twenty-first century, approximately 1,200 think tanks, ranging in size from a staff of one to several hundred, were operating in the United States. Some work in broad public-policy areas while others concentrate on economics, labor, education, agriculture, land use, child welfare, or foreign affairs. Think tanks differ by sources of revenue, organizational ties, specialization, and constituencies, but they share one attribute: think tanks pay intellectuals to engage in research that shapes public-policy choices at all levels of government. Owing to their substantial influence over domestic, economic, foreign, and military policies, think tanks raise important questions about the production, dissemination, and financing of knowledge; the academy's place in society; and the seamless line between interest groups and government. Moreover, the advent of advocacy-oriented think tanks has challenged traditional ideas about the practice of disinterested scholarship.

      A small number of think tanks were established in the early 1900s, including the reform-minded Russell Sage Foundation and the prestigious Brookings Institution, a progressive economics and public-policy research organization founded in 1916 by industrialist Robert Brookings. The Council on Foreign Relations, which publishes the journal Foreign Affairs and remains one of the most influential think tanks in America, came on the heels of World War I. The same era produced the Carnegie Center on Ethics and International Affairs, the Twentieth Century Fund (now called the Century Foundation), the Social Science Research Council, and the Institute for Advanced Study. All were created as independent, nonprofit research institutes, that is, organizations with no formal ties to a college or university. One of the first university-affiliated think tanks, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, began in 1918 as a war library at Stanford University, founded and endowed by Herbert Hoover. In 1943 the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) formed in response to the Brookings Institution. Whether independent or operating under the academy's wing, the earliest think tanks extended the realm of scholarly research and created jobs for young intellectuals. More important, they set the stage for an arrangement that would make government agencies and nonprofit organizations mutually captive in a matter of decades.

      The aftermath of World War II gave rise to America's “think tank culture.” One of the largest and most successful think tanks, the RAND Corporation, was launched by a research and development contract with the air force during the war years. RAND remained focused on national security issues throughout the 1950s, when federal authorities were preoccupied with cold war politics. In the 1960s, however, the institute's work shifted into domestic policy, responding to the federal government's antipoverty, urban development, education, and other social-policy initiatives. RAND was not the only source of policy analysis after World War II. The Aspen (Colorado) Institute, established in 1951, was inspired by a Chicago philanthropist's interest in the arts, philosophy, and democratic ideals. Over time it gained visibility for its social responsibility, technology, and executive leadership programs. During the same period, many of America's major universities established research institutes to train policymakers and cultivate future diplomats for the cold war arena. In 1951 and 1952 alone, Columbia University's East Asian Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies, Princeton's Center of International Studies, and Harvard University's Weatherhead Center opened their doors to renowned scholars and specialists and created research opportunities for advanced graduate students by pooling endowments with foundation revenues, charitable contributions, and, increasingly, government contracts. In 1958, the well-known Research Triangle Institute was founded by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.

      Several factors converged to create markets for intellectual services after 1960. Among them were the success of RAND and others at meeting the policy analysis needs of government officials, the growth of university-affiliated research centers, technological advancement, the Vietnam War, and a significant change in the size and complexity of the federal government, spawned in part by the War on Poverty. Between 1960 and 1980 think tanks quadrupled in the United States and they continued to multiply until the close of the century. Major universities bred domestic-policy research institutes just as they had bred foreign-policy institutes a decade before. Notable examples include the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers and Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research. Still, concurrent trends toward nonprofit organizations and public interest groups meant that many of the newer think tanks were tied loosely (if at all) to the academy. For example, the Urban Institute was established in 1968 as a semi-independent organization that contracts with federal agencies and state governments for policy analysis, and research and development. It also conducts research on behalf of private corporations and works internationally for such organizations as the World Bank.

      Like most think tanks established during the 1960s, the Urban Institute reflects the political climate that gave rise to its creation; it specializes in social-policy analysis, for example, community development and race relations. This is also true for the smaller but well-known Center for Law and Social Policy. Not surprisingly, the same era produced think tanks concerned with international social justice, human rights, and economically developing countries. While the Great Society and the civil rights movement dominated the domestic agenda in the United States, the Vietnam War, détente, and trade relations between developing and economically advanced countries were on the minds of international affairs experts inside and outside of government. The academy responded in kind with such think tanks as the World Policy Institute at New School University in New York City, the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, and the Harvard Institute for International Development. A nonprofit institute, the Center for International Policy, came out of the same amalgam of foreign policy concerns as did a government-sponsored think tank, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

      Conservative policy organizations flourished after 1980, forming a system of “counter—think tanks” to their more liberal predecessors and, specifically, to the academy. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Pacific Research Institute, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, the Hudson Institute, the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, the Center for the Study of American Business, the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Manhattan Institute represent conservative-leaning think tanks that have gained prominence in policy circles over the past two decades. While they also employ scholars, engage in public-policy research, and publish their findings, the new generation of think tanks—also dubbed “advocacy tanks”—differs in several respects from the nation's older public-policy establishment. Significantly, they are financed almost entirely by corporate and foundation contributors, individual donors, membership fees, and the sales of books and other publications. The Center for Strategic and International Studies provides service to federal agencies, but refusing government contract work is the mantra of conservative public-policy institutes.

Judith A. Barrett