Who funds the think tanks?

Every day there are stories in the newspapers that have originated in think tanks, based on surveys or new research reports. The think tank will probably get a mention, but a brief explanation of what and who the think tank actually is would be the exception rather than the rule. (Here’s one of today’s from the Council on Foreign Relations)

Think tanks are an accepted part of our media culture, established ways of putting forward ideas and shaping public debate. But it’s not often that we step back and ask who they are, and who pays for them, and what the agenda might be.

There’s no agreed definition of a think tank. They are unregulated and unaccountable. Anyone can set one up, and the general public never need to know who’s behind it. They usually have neutral sounding names after all, names that don’t mean anything much but that suggest academic impartiality: ResPublica, Compass, Civitas.

So if we follow the money, what do we find? The Political Innovation action group asked 20 leading UK think tanks if they would share their major funders. The results are online at whofundsyou.org, ranking the think tanks according to how transparent they were about the source of their income:

think-tanks

“At their best,” say Who Funds You, “think tanks and public policy campaigns make a valuable contribution to political life, generating new ideas and producing important research. At their worst, they can provide a neutral front while actually working on behalf of vested interests.” That’s certainly been the case on climate change, where American think tanks have led the charge against climate science, generously helped along by the Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil.

Another group that has asked questions of the think tanks is the Bureau of Investigative Journalists. They focused on groups working on finance, who it turns out, are often funded by the financial industry. As an example, they highlighted a Demos report that looked at ‘banker bashing’ from politicians. Among Demos’ funders are 13 financial corporations, including the City of London Corporation. Or the Centre for European Reform. The group has published papers arguing against the financial transaction tax, and is funded by Barclays, Citi, Deutsche Bank AG, JP Morgan and UBS, among others.

There’s nothing wrong with this on the face of it – I donate to charities and research projects that I believe in too. In the unlikely event that I ever have any serious wealth to share, I’d want to do a whole lot more of that.  The important things are that the think tanks are transparent, that journalists do their jobs in reporting on them, and that we ask more questions of the things we read in the headlines.

17 Comments on “Who funds the think tanks?”

  1. DevonChap April 10, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    This idea that think tanks have to be open about everything makes me queasy. Think tanks have no official role. They live and die on the strength of their ideas. No one is made to listen to them.

    Why do funders have to disclose themselves? Aren’t they allowed to chose anonymity? Before you say I’m just trying to defend the right wing think tanks, think about the implications of making think-tanks declare who funds them. First you have to define a think-tank, harder than you think. Is someone who puts out a press release on what they think should be done on a topic a ‘think-tank’? If not why not? Hundreds of blogs could be caught. Then you have the bureaucracy of forcing them to publish that data. And what happens if they don’t? Do you ban them? Its all getting big brotherish.

    I also note that of the 4 people behind whofundsyou.org one is the General Secretary of the Co-operative Party (allied to the Labour Party) and another the creator of the left wing spoof ‘mydavidcameron’ website and ‘anti-cuts activist’. None of this mentioned on the website, their political affiliations unmentioned so hardly the bright light of transparency they claim to guard. Hardly politically balanced.

    I have a strong suspicion that the criteria might just have been chosen to make their favoured think-tanks look better than right-wing ones they don’t like, safe in the knowledge that people will put stuff on websites without asking hard questions.

    • Jeremy April 11, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

      Are you just bitter because your favourites got an E? Of course transparency matters – if it doesn’t, why did you bother to go and Google the people behind Whofundsyou to try and poke holes in it?

      I think you’ll also find that the methodology for the survey is very simple and all there on the website. No need for the barrel scraping ad hominems.

      • DevonChap April 12, 2014 at 11:19 am #

        I checked who they were since hypocrisy matters too. You haven’t explained why think tanks, who are several steps away from power, need to be transparent or the implications which I outlined. As I said, you don’t ask hard questions.

        • Jeremy April 13, 2014 at 8:19 am #

          1) Because they have the ear of politicians, and many of them have regular meetings with one side or the other. They are clearly able to shape the agenda. Many of them boast exactly that to get more donations.

          2) They produce research which is then used to justify policy, but think tank reports are very different from academic ones. They’re often seriously biased, aren’t subject to peer review, and are often downright misleading. As the climate sceptic movement in the US shows all too well, think tanks can be used to systematically spread misinformation at the behest of fossil fuel companies. Do you really think that doesn’t matter?

          If anonymity is a major concern for donors, they can just give anonymously in the first place.

          And your charge of hypocrisy on the part of Political Innovation is nonsense, since the website tells you exactly who they are and who funds them (nobody, as it happens) That’s the whole point.

          • DevonChap April 13, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

            Unless I’m very much mistaken we have a market in think-tanks, in so far that we have a wide variety providing a wide variety of different ideas. Politicians and the public can listen to who they want.

            If reports are biased or wrong then those opposing think tanks can and do rubbish them. Are you suggesting politicians and the public are unable to evaluate evidence?

            Then there is the motivation thing. There seems to be an idea that motives matter more than results. Better to say or do something that will have bad results because you had good intentions rather than something good because you have bad or self interested reasons. I don’t care about motives, just results. Like Queen Elizabeth I don’t seek to make windows into mens’ souls and like Faust I find the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

            Finally, you would be happy if a think tank reported all donations over £5000 but only marked them as ‘anonymous’? That seems to be what you are saying, unless your famous inability to write clearly is back.

  2. Henry Law April 10, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    They all get their funds from some kind of rental income stream. Even if it comes from Rowntree it is rental income so they are not going to suggest anything that actually addresses the problems. They are feeding off the problem. That goes for the so-called charity “Shelter”, which has never supported the one measure which is a prerequisite for the cause they purport to further. The churches are little better. Shame on them all.

  3. imarunner2012 April 10, 2014 at 7:36 pm #

    I learned many years ago in a journalism class to always question your source, any source. If you don’t know who they are then you do not know their agenda. Every group has an agenda/bias, you just need to be aware of it so that you are not dooped.

    • Jeremy April 11, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

      Well covered in my journalism classes too, but easily forgotten in the rush of short deadlines and instant online news.

      • DevonChap April 12, 2014 at 11:22 am #

        I know you are in a hurry.

        • Jeremy April 13, 2014 at 8:06 am #

          There are no deadlines on my blog.

  4. Jeremy April 14, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    DevonChap, you’re the only one who complains about me not being clear. Take from that what you will. You also seem to be the only one, aside from the Adam Smith Institute and the Taxpayers Alliance perhaps, who think that transparency isn’t a good thing.

    Yes, we have a market for think tanks, but should we have a market for ideas? Should the richest people’s ideas always win out? If the Koch brothers have more money to spend on climate denial than anyone else, their ideas prevail – even though they’re wrong. The ‘results’ are enduring fossil fuel company profits, and catastrophic climate change. Well done everybody.

    All ideas serve somebody, and pointing out the motives behind an idea clarifies who it serves, who it ignores, and who it abuses.

    • DevonChap April 14, 2014 at 10:22 am #

      I think your misunderstanding of the concept of a market is well demonstrated here. A market is where people are offered different choices of something and can choose the one they prefer. Are you suggesting the range of ideas people should be offered should be limited to ones you approve of? Very Stalinist.

      You are suggesting people can’t work out BS from sense. It simply isn’t true that you can buy ideas, if it was the Republicans would never be out of power in the US. And you forget we don’t live in the USA. You can’t buy airtime to promote political ideas here and newspaper readership is declining. So the Koch example is irrelevant in our context. You show little faith in your ideas if a little money will beat them.

      It is an tired old lie to traduce the motives of those who you disagree with. Are you suggesting that those who espouse free market or low tax ideas aren’t doing so because they feel it is in the best interests of wider society? That only those with left of centre ideas are ‘moral’? I thought we had gone over this before.

      I still don’t understand your idea that anonymity can be stopped by allowing people to remain anonymous. Clearly that idea abuses me.

      • Jeremy April 22, 2014 at 9:17 am #

        Let’s say I get a press release tomorrow that says that eating more fatty foods is not a health risk. It’s from the think tank Nutritio, and it includes the pre-written quote from their ‘head of nutritional science’ saying how we’ve all been wrong. As a journalist, it’s a no-brainer that I’d want to look up Nutritio – their credentials, what other people say about them, and who funds them. It would be negligence not to.

        You insist I don’t need to know, that the information is irrelevant, and that it’s wrong to ask for it.

        Not sure our positions are reconcilable here.

  5. Tegan Tallullah April 24, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Think tanks should absolutely be transparent about their funding, because as Jeremy says, the major ones have a lot of influence through being cited as an authoritative source in newspapers and their research also helps to shape policies – along with other factors of course. It’s a no brainer they should be made to disclose their funding, because otherwise they can be harbouring an agenda that’s pretending to be science or some neutral idea.
    DevonChap – you read this blog and comment on literally every post trying to pull it apart. I appreciate intellectual debate but a lot of the time your objections don’t even make sense to me. If you hate this blog so much why do you read it? I’m just curious.

    • henry1941 April 25, 2014 at 10:52 am #

      Be thankful that there is someone who is sufficiently interested in what you are saying that they are willing to spend time pulling your arguments apart. Tools need to be kept sharp so think of opponents as a honing stone. Sometimes you come up with new arguments as a result. Sometimes you realise that you have got things wrong. It is easy to get lazy with one’s thinking.

      Perhaps DC would be interested in pulling apart the arguments on
      http://www.landvaluetax.org

  6. Jeremy April 25, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    Absolutely, commenters who can tell me where I’m wrong are very valuable. The blog is a whole lot better for it.

    On this post however, I’m slightly at a loss. I’ve never heard anyone argue against transparency or journalistic rigour.

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