Think tanks should ‘think European’ to fight global challenges

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

At a time when European countries are struggling to cope with the financial and economic crises, European think tanks are ill-fitted to help decision-makers find innovative solutions, authors Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo argue in a book released this month.

In a new revised edition of the book ‘Les think tanks: Cerveaux de la guerre des idées,’ former co-secretary general of the Paris-based think tank Notre Europe, Stephen Boucher, and journalist Martine Royo analyse the supremacy of American think tanks over their European counterparts. 

Compared to the United States, Europe is poorly equipped to fight the war of ideas, allowing American think tanks to lead the world in framing innovative and creative solutions to solve global challenges, the authors assert. 

All 27 member states still tend to think ‘national’ rather than ‘European’, the authors argue, citing the latest survey mapping think tanks in both sides of the Atlantic. 

According to Boucher and Royo, the survey shows that despite an increase in the number of think tanks to 1,200 in Europe (compared to 1,750 in the US), European research institutes seem stuck in their local environment and lack the greater ambition of devising ideas which could cast light on Europe-wide policies, at a time when the European elite is realising that it does not reflect public opinion on the continent. 

The authors argue that the European Commission is the institution that is supposed to define the common interest of the EU, but lacks the audacity to do so, instead serving the interests of the Union’s member states. For instance, Europe “needs to produce ideas on how to better coordinate economic policies,” underlines the book. 

The number of think tanks has grown exponentially worldwide in the last thirty years, but time has come for them to make a qualitative step forward, argue the authors, which calls for a balancing act on four different strands: 

First, think tanks have to maintain their specific nature and avoid falling into the trap of short-term projects aimed at influencing quick political decisions. Instead, organisations need to find a better equilibrium between their financing needs and their financial and intellectual autonomy. In Europe, especially in France, too many think tanks are dependent on public money. 

Due to the lack of transparency in their accounts, the authors note that there is a real danger of some think tanks becoming “submarines of private interests”. Indeed, the book reports that Exxon Mobil gave $8 million between 2000 and 2003 to about forty think tanks that downplay global warming and weaken the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. 

Second, a regular turnover of researchers is considered crucial to genuinely renewing ideas and preventing think tanks from falling into the trap of one-track thinking, the authors stress. Boucher and Royo note that the vitality of American think tanks is enhanced by the revolving door phenomenon, which allows researchers and analysts to switch between government positions and the activities of reflection groups. 

Third, the book calls for the development of new working methods which seek to balance the need for quick, short-term media impact and long-term reflection and in-depth research. According to the authors, European think tanks are less tempted by the quick media fix than their American counterparts, which are more at risk of a “gadgetisation of ideas”. 

Think tanks must distinguish themselves from consultancies, which increasingly invest in public policy and portray themselves as a cross-breed between think tank and consultancies, the book further argues. 

Last but not least, researchers and analysts should work across nations, with Boucher and Royo proposing the creation of ‘ideas’ networks, especially between developed and developing countries. 

“Governments need more than ever clear and fitted ideas, which can help them to interpret the complexity of their environment and draw actions accordingly. They need more than ever inspiration to tackle today’s global challenges,” conclude the authors, hoping for a genuine dynamic revival of more reflective, forward-looking and visionary think tanks. 

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