“There are two crucial questions to ask about research outcomes, including from think tanks: Who is paying? Who benefits?”

Dr Scott Taylor and Dr Amon Barros writes for the Birmingham Business School Blog:

A long-established London-based think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs made the news in an unwelcome way recently when its director was recorded by journalists offering access to confidential political information — including information on British politicians — in exchange for financial support. He described how potential research funders could shape the content of final research reports, and how the IEA’s research conclusions will always support free trade principles and corporate interests.

Is this really surprising? Or is it just surprising that the IEA’s director was caught on tape making such promises?

At the very least, this story prompts some pressing questions about influential think tanks. These are not new entrants to the political scene — they have been developing since the early 20th century — but from the 1970s the number of think tanks has increased steadily. They are considered serious actors in political and economic debate, especially for research and policy advice on economic issues.

Part of this success stems from a willingness to work with politicians or business leaders to develop research projects that contribute to forming opinion on sensitive issues. Analysts provide clear, concise, and practical recommendations to pressing social or economic controversies. The best think tanks hire professional researchers and generate funding for readable and robust research, which use established methods to collect data and reliable analytical tools to interpret it. In sum, a lot of think tank research is taken very seriously, and for good reason – it is informed and timely.

Yet political debate is now framed by a mistrust of “experts” who claim specific knowledge and authority, as well as their research. Current UK Minister of State and prominent Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove famously suggested on Sky News during the Brexit referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, especially economists. This became one of the most repeated soundbites of 2016, symbolising the loss of trust in people in positions of power, especially (ironically) politicians.

See also Why We Need Experts
Britain Special: Out of the EU, Into the Void — 9 Experts on Brexit and What’s Next

However, some experts and their research are still trusted. Reports from think tanks like the IEA are frequently cited by politicians in debate, and news reports often include a representative from a think tank to provide clear soundbites on complex issues. Think tanks seem to be exempt from the scepticism of experts – how did that happen?

We are conducting research on think tanks in Brazil and the UK, which starts from the basis that think tanks are knowledge translators designed to guide political debate in a specific ideological direction. This is different to corporate lobbying or corporate political action – corporations seek political influence mainly for instrumental economic reasons, rather than “pure” political reasons. Perhaps the most important question centres on research funding and its effects. As The Economist noted:

Unlike many other institutions designed to promote free inquiry, such as universities or some publications, think-tanks do not enjoy large endowments, researcher tenure, or subscription revenue to insulate thinkers from paymasters.

Of course, all research has a “paymaster” – at universities, this is usually a state research council or an independent charity. Neither of these institutions promote a particular political position and would not support any research that explicitly stated a political stance. That is an implicit part of the professional code, even if it is not contractual or written into research proposals.

The IEA’s director has broken a series of norms with his promises in relation to research and to our expectation of how public debate should function. But he has done one good thing – he has made clear that research should always be questioned on its funding base, and the relationship between funder and research provider. There are two crucial questions to ask about research outcomes: Who is paying? Who benefits?

Medical researchers have experience of this, as do some in business schools, and there are clear professional norms in place. Academic researchers are always prompted to disclose direct links to those who benefit from their work. Media reporting of research findings and proposals could be much clearer on a research project’s background. If we can accept that all knowledge and expertise can be political and politicized, public debate will be much better informed.