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Does Your Think Tank Accept Rubles?

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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The biggest question raised by the New York Times's much-discussed expose on Sunday, "Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks," is why anybody in Washington -- or anywhere else for that matter -- should have been surprised.

This is hardly new: During Japan's go-go years two decades ago, for instance, the impact of foreign money on U.S. policy institutions inspired a crop of books such as Pat Choate's "Agents of Influence." In the intervening years, plenty of people have looked at the corrosive effect of both foreign and domestic funding, including this recent investigative report by Ken Silverstein.

Some of the alarmism, though, seems unwarranted: The Times's piece asserts, for instance, that "policy makers who rely on think tanks are often unaware of the role of foreign governments in funding the research." Actually, its safe to assume that policy makers are all too familiar with the funding sources for think tanks, because they probably worked at one in between government jobs.

Instead of debating whether Norway's funding of U.S. think tanks really is a threat to the American way of life, we should be considering the underlying forces that drive institutions to seek out such money: the unceasing quest for growth and brand recognition that both corrupts and diminishes their scholarship.

The Times lays out a theory for the increase in foreign cash: "The think tanks' reliance on funds from overseas is driven, in part, by intensifying competition within the field: The number of policy groups has multiplied in recent years, while research grants from the United States government have dwindled."

That's true as far as it goes: The population of U.S. think tanks has more than doubled since 1980 (with almost a quarter of them in Washington), while overseas think tanks have both grown in number and influence. At the same time, national, state and local government support for think tanks has dwindled.

There are other factors, though, that are more interesting. James McGann of the University of Pennsylvania, whose research institute publishes a ranking of think tanks, points out that they are being squeezed from several directions. Foundations are attaching more strings to the fat checks they used to write. Instead of donating to a think tank's general funding, many just want to underwrite specific programs with micro-managed research agendas and highly-targeted audiences -- what McGann calls "program-itis." Meanwhile, corporate donors that have also paid the bills are now getting the results they want faster and with fewer constraints by turning to for-profit consulting firms.

The Washington think tanks dinged in the Times article aren't immune to these pressures, but that has hardly stopped them from growing. In its 2013 annual report, Brookings noted that its budget went from $39 million in 2003 to $95 million in 2013. Jostling for influence and prestige, the biggest organizations have opened overseas branches, erected well-marbled $100 million headquarters, started sexy new programs to woo foundation dollars, bid up the price for marquee scholars, and given their executives distinctly un-tweedy salaries.

Those investments, though, have come at the expense of their scholarship. To cover growing overhead and make up for less general funding, many heads of programs and associates have to spend a quarter or more of their time rattling their tin cups. That means not only tailoring research areas to attract donors, but also spending less time being a scholar. And no sitting quietly in your office: Get out there on the Sunday shows. As McGann told me of the institutions, "they're not interested in ideas, they're interested in impact." Allow me to mourn one recent casualty of this trend: The Wilson Quarterly, published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (and where I was managing editor in the 1980s), has been transformed from a robust and eclectic journal of ideas into a pale online shadow of itself, relying mostly on short, in-house contributions.

It's hard to see a happy ending to the think-tank arms race. No matter how rigorous the internal guidelines stating that scholars should be free to reach their own conclusions, self-preservation is a powerful instinct that can drive many a self-styled independent soul to self-censorship. And while greater transparency of donors would be nice, it's no substitute for good judgment by think-tank leaders: Disclosure or no disclosure, why the Center for Strategic and International Studies would think it's acceptable to have a shipbuilding company sponsor a study on the U.S. Navy's amphibious shipping shortage defies me.

It may take a return to the original endowment model, which frees scholars from the need to raise money for individual projects, to guarantee researchers' independence -- a point recently made by John Judis. But don't hold your breath: As things now stand, Washington seems more likely to become a hotbed of well-funded unthinking tanks -- purveyors of conventional wisdom palatable to prospective funders rather than havens for iconoclasts looking over the horizon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net