Think-tanks going global, survey finds

The proliferation, global expansion, and networking of think-tanks has boosted their potential to develop solutions to today's global public policy issues, according a major study published last month by the University of Pennsylvania.

"While more think-tanks are appearing around the globe, individual think-tanks themselves are simultaneously globalising [by] executing global expansion strategies," found the study, produced by James McGann, director of the 'Think-Tanks and Civil Societies Program' at the Philadelphia-based institution.

While "think-tanks can be seen as one of the main policy actors in democratic societies that assure a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation," they are can also be considered "as a euphemism for special interest groups that have their own political agendas," McGann warned.

Today there are over 6,300 think-tanks operating in 169 countries, according to the study, a proliferation which it claims has "exponentially increased the potential for international communication, information-gathering, and new and creative policy analysis".

However, "not all think-tanks have the financial, intellectual and legal independence that enables them to inform public decision-making," the study cautions, concluding that the problem is "most acute" in developing and transitional countries, where financial and legal support is limited. 

Worldwide, North America and Western Europe "dominate the scene" with 56% of think-tanks, while the 'Middle East and North Africa' (4%) and Africa (8%) have the fewest.

"The number and overall impact of policy research organisations have been growing and spreading," McGann’s research found, stressing that while think-tanks are just one of many civil society actors in a country, "they often serve as catalysts for political and economic reform".  

Europe is home to 1,750 think-tanks, or 28% of the world’s total, the study reveals. Of these, 285 are based in the UK, significantly more than in second-placed Germany (190) or third-placed France (168).

The researchers rank Chatham House (UK) as the number one non-US think-tank in the world, followed in second and third place by Transparency International (Germany) and the International Crisis Group (Belgium) respectively: although the latter two could also be seen as pressure groups.

The Belgium-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) is the first EU-centric think-tank to make the list, in ninth position.

In the Western European ranking, CEPS makes fourth position, with Chatham House topping the list. The Centre for European Reform (CER) in London came 15th.

Each think-tank was rated according to a wide variety of criteria, including research output (number of publications, conferences held, web hits, mentions in respected media), the degree to which its policy recommendations are adopted or considered by policymakers, access to political elites, ability to retain elite scholars and analysts, and size of its financial resources.

Expressing delight at being ranked among the top ten think-tanks in the world for the third year in a row, Marco Incerti, head of communications at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) said "the fact that we consistently manage to stay on top of the game in the face of increasing competition testifies to the quality of our work and vindicates our policy of focusing on two pillars: producing policy research of the highest standards and insisting on complete independence in our work".

"These guiding principles are embodied in our highly qualified research staff and our broad structure of financing," Incerti said.

"We are deeply honoured to be counted among the world’s top think tanks (and all that that implies about our originality, objectivity and commitment to excellence) and will strive to defend and justify that recognition," he concluded.

Describing the survey as "the world’s reference ranking," the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) said "in 2009, for the third year in a row, IFRI was the only French institute to feature among the 10 most influential non-US think-tanks in the world".

IFRI further drew attention to the fact that it was "the only French institute to make the list of the top 50 think-tanks worldwide".

Expressing satisfaction with being ranked the number one non-US think-tank in the world, Chatham House Director Dr. Robin Niblett said "the think-tank space is becoming increasingly competitive as existing institutions vie with new ones to offer ideas to policy and decision-makers around the world".

"Chatham House continues to do a great job in anticipating some of the momentous shifts in the global balance of political and economic power such as that we have witnessed this past year," Niblett continued.

He concluded by warning: "We cannot be complacent about the complex challenges that these shifts present to us analytically and institutionally and are committed to maintaining the reputation we have earned for independent analysis and creative thinking on international affairs."

'The Global 'Go-To' Think-Tanks 2009' survey was launched in January 2010 by James G. McGann of the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania.  

A previous edition of the study in 2007 had found that globalisation was leading to worldwide growth in the number of think-tanks, but cautioned that such institutions had to maintain their relevance by displaying a "flair for publicity" and a "streak of eccentricity" if they were to ensure they continue to engage policymakers, the press and the public (EURACTIV 15/01/08).

Most think-tanks in Europe have a national or sectoral focus, and even those that deal with EU policymaking often look at issues from national or sectoral perspectives rather than seeking to define the interests of the Union as a whole (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'The changing face of European think-tanks').

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