Alberto Mingardi  

How to measure the influence of think tanks?

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Think tanks very often claim they are "fighting the war of ideas" - but indeed it is difficult to assess success and casualties in this kind of "war". All non-profits have problems in finding suitable metrics for their achievements - but think tanks particularly so. After all, if your goal is to feed the poor, you can assess your impact by counting how many you are feeding, in proportion to the area in which you operate. But what kind of assessment can you make, if your aim is to change the climate of opinion?
Well, first of all this kind of success can only be seen in the long run: but research centres need to finance themselves in the short run, and produce results that can please their supporters.
Measuring productivity is relatively easy. Most institutes keep track - among others - of their media hits: op-eds their researchers publish, articles that discuss their papers, TV interviews and the like. This is all nice, but I fear it is not very meaningful. It is one thing to react to new proposals and laws, another - quite different - is to be the agenda setter. If your researchers get often invited to radio and TV shows, they are certainly talented enough to entertain and speak out in the political debate - but this does not necessarily mean they will influence and change the way people think, in the long term (though if they go to TV they are more likely to do it, than if they live in a monastery).
James McGann, a political scientist now with the University of Pennsylvania, has long been trying to provide think tanks with an interesting tool. His "Global Go To Think Tank" is based on extensive polling of the community of peers, and other opinion formers. The ranking aims to reflect think tanks' reputations, in the eyes of those most interested in this trade.
I think McGann does a great work, keeping track of more than 6,000 think tanks all over the world. The definition of think tank he uses is necessarily a rather loose one, which produces some paradoxes (he numbers some 80 think tanks in Italy, for example, but they vary greatly for impact, size, research capabilities, et cetera). The nomination and selection process relied on as many as over 700 experts, plus think tankers, NGO people, journalists and (rather few) donors as inputs. No work of this kind can be perfect - but it makes for an interesting read. By the way the top world wide think tank in 2013 is the Brookings Institution. The first free market oriented ones are the Heritage Foundation (17), the Cato Institute (18), the Fraser Institute (22), the American Enterprise Institute (24) and the Indian Center for Civil Society (50). If you never heard of CCS, check it out. Their amazing campaign for school choice in India is particularly noteworthy.

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Joe Barnett writes:

I disagree with Alberto regarding Gann's "Go to Think Tank" project. The process Gann uses is problematic, at best. Yes, hundreds of people in the think tank industry are asked to nominate other think tanks in dozens of categories. But anonymous "expert panels" chosen by Gann decide which small group of nominees will be listed on a "ballot" that is then proposed to the same or an even wider audience.
So the only opinions that matter are those of the people on these "expert panels," because they decide the choices that are presented for the rankings. Isn't this similar to the electoral process in Iran? Isn't this less democratic than a straight-out popularity contest like the American television program "American Idol?"

I can predict (and I'm willing to make a wager on it) that the No. 1 go to think tank in the world for the next 10 years in a row will be the Brookings Institution. So what does that tell you?

Sinclair Davidson writes:

This might be a quibble over the definition of the term "think tank".

Many of the organisations identified as think tanks in Australia (for example) are actually institutes established by universities. Now that doesn't preclude them from being think tanks, but there are well-known and well established metrics for measuring performance for what are essentially university departments.

Also some of the think tanks identified (again, in Australia) are simply lobby groups that have managed to incorporate themselves as not-for-profit.

Alberto Mingardi writes:

Thanks for the comment. I agree with Sinclair Davidson: McGann’s definition of “think tank” is too wide. However, let’s look at it this way: any narrower definition would have been even more controversial. For example, I used to maintain that think tanks were (a) non-university based, independent entities and (b) mostly privately funded. But nowadays university-based think tanks are growing in number, in some countries—I suspect—not least for allowing freer contractual relationships than those possible within the boundaries of the university system. McGann’s solution is basically considering a think tank whatever body defines itself as such. This is far from perfect, but it is understandable considered the ambitions of his study: he could have produced a more reliable list of think tanks, based on a narrower and more robust definition, perhaps for the Western world. But what about African countries?
I suppose this would also be my answer to Joe Barnett. There is a certain harzard, and indeed it is likely, that "friends of friends" will continue to vote one for each other. This happens also because even the most well informed of them doesn’t know much on a whole bunch of issues and countries. I suppose the “Experts Panel” are conceived as a device to mitigate this problem. I do agree that it would be much better for McGann, if he would provide a comprehensive list of his experts. Again, his work is far from perfect—but I think that to be better it would necessarily be narrower in scope. This said, I won’t bet against you…

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