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Polarization at Think Tanks Studied

The rise in partisan politics and the “pressure to align politically” is polarizing Washington think tanks and compromising the quality of their debate and research, a new study suggests.

Washington politicians are enlisting public policy research organizations to “provide the ammunition in the battle over good and evil,” according to a report to be released this week by the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s program on Think Tanks and Civil Societies. While this has vaulted think tanks in the middle of important policy debates, it has also risked their independence and the complexity of the debate.

The report’s author — program director James McGann, a longtime student of think tanks — writes that policy research institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to remain nonpartisan in today’s politically polarized environment. As a result, he argues, the number of “centrist” organizations is dropping and “gaps have arisen in the depth and variety of their research.”

“The result of this change is a shift toward either side of the political spectrum, a large dichotomy of liberal organizations on one side, conservative organizations on the other, and a limited number of centrist institutions in the middle,” McGann wrote.

The study surveyed attitudes at 23 leading think tanks in the United States. Participating organizations ranged the ideological spectrum and included the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the RAND Corporation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Nixon Center. Eleven other think tanks declined to participate.

The trends summarized in McGann’s report, titled “Scholars, Dollars and Policy Advice,” were taken from comments and information provided in written surveys. The survey, which contained mostly open-ended questions, was conducted from December 2003 to May 2004. With only a few exceptions, the questionnaires were completed by the president of each institution. In some cases, they were followed up with telephone interviews.

In the surveys, think tank heads were asked to describe everything from the major challenges facing their organization to the trends they’ve seen emerging in the past five years.

The surveys also asked executives to rank the top 25 U.S. think tanks. In alphabetical order, the top 10 were as follows: American Enterprise Institute; Baker Institute of Public Policy; Brookings Institution; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Carter Center; Cato Institute; Center for Strategic and International Studies; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Century Foundation; and Council on Foreign Relations.

One think-tank executive remarked that the situation is so bad that “there is little interest in detailed analysis looking at both sides of an issue, and if a group does not support an issue 100 percent, the group is seen as an ally of the ‘enemy.’”

Another said it is “hard to get a hearing for ideas that do not fit neatly into the conventional left-right boxes.”

To be fair, others surveyed found some benefits of increased political partisanship. One respondent said the polarization has “heightened the interest of both policymakers and the public in the work of think tanks, which has forced think tanks to conduct more focused research on current, high-profile issues and caused them to be conscious of how, where, when and to whom they disseminate their ideas.”

One executive dubbed the current era the “golden age of think tanks,” while another argued that “never before has there been so much interest in international affairs, [and] presidential politics and think tanks are right in the middle of it.”

McGann’s report also examines how changes in funding, the proliferation of non-governmental organizations, the emergence of a “24/7 media,” globalization trends and technological advances, including the Internet, have affected the think-tank community.

The study noted that the “omnipresent media” has created a generation of think-tank television stars thanks to the fact that many are regularly featured commentators on the cable news networks. That’s good news for the think tanks, said one executive who observed that it is helping to “put the public back in public policy.”

At the same time, the rapid news cycle also has created a demand of “sound bites, rather than sound analysis,” McGann’s report states.

The “most prominent area of negative change,” however, is funding, the report says.

In addition to dealing with the difficult realities of fundraising during an economic downturn, those corporations, private foundations and individuals who fund think-tank institutions have tended to replace longer-term institutional support for grants that are shorter in duration and project-specific.

An increased number of think tanks dedicated to specific issues has also heightened the competition for funding, McGann found.