Think Tanks in America
Thomas Medvetz
U. of Chicago Press
344 pp.; $29.25

Thomas Medvetz’s Think Tanks in America ends with a question: “Should money and political power direct ideas, or should ideas direct themselves?” The rest of the book steers the reader toward what seems to be the obvious answer. Medvetz offers a forceful critique of think tanks, which he sees as allowing those with economic and political clout to exclude disinterested researchers from the debate.

This is a cynical and reductive view. Think tanks are ornery beasts, to be sure—the worst of them lend an aura of respectability and rigor to the most harmful social policies, and at the better ones, donors’ whims often control what researchers can investigate, even if the results are not exactly decided in advance. Yet think tanks can serve valuable purposes, too. Think Tanks in America is exhaustively researched and provides a thorough account of all of the forces that can prevent scholars at think tanks from reaching the right conclusions, but Medevetz says little about why some of them get it right anyway. His book does not provide a useful framework for understanding how think tanks could be improved, or why some of them cope with external influence better than others.

For Medvetz, the modern era of the think tank began with the Institute for Policy Studies, established in 1963. There had been similar organizations for decades: the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the RAND Corporation, among others. What made the Institute for Policy Studies different was that its founders, Marcus Raskin and Richard Barnet, rejected the ideal these older institutions embodied, that of a society administered by neutral experts employing rational and scientific inquiry. Instead, Raskin, Barnet, and the many others who followed them built activist groups that challenged the academic and bureaucratic elites and made no pretense of impartiality. The success of the Heritage Foundation, established in 1973, firmly established the new model, but the Institute for Policy Studies had pioneered it.

Raskin and Barnet had radical ideas. Medvetz quotes Raskin, who called for a new realm of knowledge with “a non-objective base—at least as objectivity has come to be understood in the social sciences” (98-99). They weren’t alone in their revolt. At the time, much of the country, not just the radical left, was looking askance at natural science and social science alike. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published the previous year, denounced chemistry as the midwife to a brood of toxins, and the movement against nuclear engineering adopted a similar tone. Dr. Strangelove, released in 1964, was a parody of contemporary academic debates over the game theory of mutual deterrence. Psychoanalysis, urban renewal, thalidomide—countless promises of progress were broken in those days.

In Medvetz’s analysis, modern think tanks command a kind of epistemological high ground bordered by the academy to the west, the press to the south, politicians to the north, and business to the east. They often depend for their material support on powerful groups with a political or economic interest in their results. They also rely on journalists and politicians to disseminate and implement their ideas. Medvetz would rather that social scientists be sheltered from the corrupting influences of those fields, perhaps in the relative safety of the academy, but he is ignoring the lesson of the past 50 years or so of public policy research: meaningful independence and objectivity are nearly impossible to achieve anywhere.

For Medvetz, the birth of the think tank was a regrettable departure, one that largely removed scientific expertise from the country’s government. Ironically, it is a common liberal complaint these days that elected officials ignore science, from the warnings of climatology to the principles of Keynesian economics. Were the founders of the Institute for Policy Studies tragically shortsighted? That organization emerged during an intellectual crisis when many people lost faith in expert knowledge after experiencing its very real failures. They began to suspect that all research is done on behalf of someone or other. Medvetz provides no evidence that the crisis was temporary, or that the reasons Raskin and Barnet established their organization have lost their force.

The pharmaceutical industry’s influence on medical journals is a reminder that those half-century-old dilemmas have not conveniently disappeared. There are more mundane problems, too. Candidates for tenure at a university are less likely to challenge a discipline’s assumptions. The processes of literature review and peer review can encourage research that accords with prevailing intellectual trends. As Raskin and others recognized, these factors can distort the meaning of “objective” to “accepted by a large group of people.” That’s not to say most academic papers aren’t valid or worthwhile, but the need for a different kind of research organization remains.

It is true that think tanks have, to some degree, become the bullhorns of the powerful. The wealthy and the well-connected use them to amplify their protests and their slogans. Still, that influence can be positive as well as destructive. Whatever your political views, you can probably point to a writer sponsored by a think tank whose work you admire, and she owes her job to some rich donor—or to a corporate foundation, or a labor union. One of the many useful statistics Medvetz presents is that 40 percent of the Economic Policy Institute’s budget has come from unions in recent years. Yet when conservative opponents dismiss the group’s work on that basis alone, they are committing a fallacy. At times, Think Tanks in America verges on a similar ad hominem.

Perhaps if social scientists could retreat to caves in the wilderness to compile their data, they might achieve meaningful intellectual autonomy. That isn’t possible, and not just because researchers have families to think about. They want their work to be visible, to have an effect on the political process, otherwise they wouldn’t do what they do. For some, lecturing and publishing aren’t enough. They want sound studios and lobbyists, and they leave the academy for Washington. Yet wherever they work, researchers are exposed to political and economic forces constantly, from the grant proposal to the book tour. The connections Medvetz objects to are why think tanks have the wherewithal to support valuable research and to advocate for the implementation of good policy.

Demanding that “ideas direct themselves,” as Medvetz does, is really to insist that ideas disappear. Consider the amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to make it harder for the National Science Foundation to fund research in political science. In Think Tanks in America, Medvetz argues that the Reagan administration was able to manipulate organizations researching poverty because of their dependence on federal funding. Accepting that logic, you would have to conclude that Coburn is trying to do the discipline a favor by rescuing it from government officials who may have an ulterior agenda.

No think tank is free from the forces Medvetz describes, so his critique discredits all of them indiscriminately, which is unfair to those organizations that produce rigorous analysis. Think tanks are diverse, and it would be worth studying how their institutional structures affect their research. For example, how are think tanks with wealthy, individual donors different from think tanks supported by foundations with many donors or whose primary donors have passed away? Does a more formal grantmaking process reward think tanks that maintain higher standards, or does it prevent them from responding nimbly to the changing political environment? Also, why have some conservative think tanks expelled employees who have objected to the agenda of the G.O.P. elite, such as Bruce Bartlett and David Frum? Are there ways of protecting fellows from political dismissals?

Medvetz’s approach also prevents him from asking whether there are any policies think tanks can adopt to improve the quality of their scholarship. Their social scientists do not have to seek publication in refereed journals. They are not obliged to disclose their sources of funding, and they often conflate policy research with advocacy. Some see this as laxity, but others might prefer to call it flexibility. Are there ways for think tanks to remain flexible while preventing methodological catastrophes such as the Heritage Foundation’s work on immigration earlier this year? Frustratingly, Medvetz does not address these issues. These problems are a result of how hard it is to identify a purely objective, infinitely disinterested standpoint from which to evaluate researchers and their work. The fact that there is no clear way for them to demonstrate their credibility forces think tanks into all kinds of contortions as they participate in the democratic process.

Still, Think Tanks in America is worth reading, because the book demonstrates conclusively why these institutions are important. It might be true that the shape of the electorate determines the political agenda more than any amount of research, as demonstrated by the change in the conservative response to Heritage’s position on immigration since 2007. Even so, think tanks—and Heritage foremost among them—have managed to define what we think of as nonpartisan public policy research. Medvetz wants us to take a hard look at that definition, and ask ourselves whether it means what we think it does.

Post filed under Criticism.

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