Archive | March, 2013

Perspective: Edwin Meese III Discusses Institutional Mission Fidelity and the Advantage of Broad-Based Support

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation and former chairman of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, comments on mission fidelity, management practices, and the advantage of a broad base of support.  The interview took place on October 25, 2012.

Mr. Meese, we were talking about having an inner discipline about being committed to the mission. [How do you] not allow the possibility of specific donations to divert you from your principles?

MEESE:  As you say, we don’t do contract work, [and] we don’t take any governmental funds from any government. We try to be very transparent in all that we do. We are clear about what our mission is, clear about what our principles are, clear about what our objectives are, clear about what our overall philosophy is.  [P]eople who desire to become members of Heritage, who desire to contribute to Heritage Foundation, understand that that they are contributing because they want to be part of and support the work we do rather than the other way around.

Everybody has a mission statement, and it’s often highly general. So how do you figure out what [the mission statement] means in the context of specific research programs?

MEESE:  Well, for one thing, we set up our primary principles of individual liberty, limited government, free market economics, strong national defense, support of what we call “traditional American values.” That [last one is] the only one that’s a little bit nebulous there, and by that we mean family and religion, we mean patriotism, we mean things like a commitment to work, individual responsibility.  Then, we have our mission: to promote a society in which freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. We say clearly, we are nonpartisan, but we are conservative, so we are committed to a philosophy but not to a political party or any candidates.

It’s hard to resist partisan pressures when they arise. How do you do that?

MEESE:  Well, it’s not hard, because we’ve been doing it so long, and everybody who is here understands that.  But we are attentive to the issue, and we have a system within our management structure so that we provide guidance to all of our people, particularly in an election year, as to how they are to act and how they are to respond to things like questions from a political organization of any sort.  [T]he organizers must understand that we would give the same thing to their opponents.

For example, if they call, we provide briefings to candidates across the board. Now, obviously, one party is more likely to ask questions and to seek information from a conservative organization than the other party, but we do [briefings] on a nonpartisan basis. The second the thing we do is, we don’t get involved in support—Heritage itself—in support of legislation or opposition to specific legislation. We do have a 501(c)(4) organization, Heritage Action for America is a sister organization, and they they are able to lobby, but again, not to support specific candidates or anything like that.

A lot of the research that scholars at think tanks do is more applied than what’s going on in academic departments. Where do you see the position of think tanks and what they do, related to academia on one side and activists on the other?

MEESE:  I would say that that we pride ourselves on [our] information being factual, on being supported by evidence, by looking at counterarguments, and by trying to provide recommendations in terms of what policy will be. Our policy ideas, if you will, can be useful, and hopefully would be adopted by people of whatever political party, based on the overall direction of our philosophy. Our President, Ed Feulner, has said that he often hears from Democrat congressman that they look at Heritage materials—our issue briefs, for example—and they can use everything up to the final page, which has the the conclusion and the recommendations. They said they tear that page off and use the rest of it. We consider that a good thing.

Do you have any internal ethics policies or conflict of interest policies and guidelines in the organization?

MEESE:  Gosh, only on political activity. We have clear-cut rules on political activity. But we do have a management structure, so somebody from the beginning people in the organization, policy analysts who start here of as well as support people, all the way to the president, they have someone that can go to for advice and guidance on any of the, what you might call ethics issues. And likewise, we have we have reviews for factual matters, so we have a series of editorial reviews of anything coming out of here.

So, you have a quality review process, where you vet work before it’s published.

MEESE:  Sometimes we may even have more than one. Say we are doing something on national security law. We will want to make sure that it is been vetted by people who are our experts on national security as well as by our legal experts. If they were talking about something like the Law of the Sea Treaty, they would want to have it vetted by, not only their experts from the navigational standpoint, the economics standpoint, but also from the constitutional legal standpoint.

So, this process of review is to make sure that we have [good] quality in terms of accuracy, as well as of course readability and those other qualities. That is part of our regular process. [E]very Monday morning at our management meetings, where we have our our senior management and our next level of management, we have a review of all the topics that are being researched, and what you might call “major policy documents.”

If you were going to give some advice to a new, small think tank that is just getting off the ground and trying to develop best practices, what advice would you give them?

MEESE:  Well, first of all, hire good scholars. Look carefully at people’s background for, obviously, intellectual capability, as well as the other things you need, writing style and all that. Look at their background in terms of their education, and ascertain to make sure they have intellectual integrity. Those qualities you need. And then, of course, a thorough review of the policies of the organization—the things we’ve been talking about, the mission, the philosophy, and those kinds of things—hopefully before they are hired.

The next thing, of course, would be that they understand the review process, and then particularly having a process of how you handle what you might call complaints, criticisms, that sort of thing.  [L]et’s say somebody publishes paper and the next day you have EJ Dionne or someone like that criticizing the paper.  We would want to first speak to the analyst who wrote the paper and probably that person’s superior officer to see whether the criticism was in any way justified or accurate. If it isn’t, we decide what kind of rebuttal we want to have, whether we’re just going to let it go because it’s inconsequential or nobody believes that person anyway. Or, they’ve got a good point, and we go back and check our informational resources to make sure we are accurate. If we’re right, we defend the position. If somebody’s made a mistake, we correct it. In other words, we maintain absolute integrity in terms of factual matter.

How do you handle instances of empirical disagreement when they crop up within the organization? For example, if one person thinks program X tends to increase literacy, and another person can’t find that effect, how do you hammer those things out?

MEESE:  It goes to the next level of management. If we get to a total impasse, then we would figure out how to handle it. Usually it’s not so much on a factual matter as it is, like you say, an interpretation or an idea of how we are proceed from there. Sometimes, take a tough subject like immigration policy, as we have a couple years ago, where we were essentially at odds with what George W. [Bush] wanted to do, and some of the others, and we had people on both sides within the organization, several sides that case. So, what we will often do is put together a working group, and I’m often asked to head them up, or someone else fairly senior here. We would bring all people together and argue it out and ultimately either reach a consensus, which is often what we are able to do, or just have to flat make a decision.

I took a look at your annual reports, and I noticed that you seem to recognize a lot of your donors.

MEESE:  We want to recognize, particularly the major donors, but we also have 700,000 people who are members, so even what we put in our annual report is just a very small fraction of our total body of contributors.

Would you say that there are any advantages to having a very broad donor base in terms of the mission, or being able to maintain a measure of independence from any one donor?

MEESE:  Absolutely, that’s very important. The broader the base, the better, not being dependent on any one individual, or one organization, or one foundation. We are probably, of all the major research and education foundations, less dependent on corporate support than most. It’s certainly less than 6% [of annual revenues]. I’m not sure exactly, but somewhere very, very low. And that’s for a reason, because we have had situations when corporations disagree with us or want us to move in a particular direction that’s favorable towards their ideas or their products. We just don’t do that, so we deliberately keep our corporate support as a small percentage of our total support.

A Shilling on the Side

Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray reports that former Bush speechwriter Joshua Trevino secretly organized a gaggle of professional writers to opine about Malaysia.  In return, the writers received payments from public relations firms representing the government of Malaysia.  Their columns—which praised the Malaysian government or criticized its political opponents without disclosing the financial relationship between author and subject—appeared in various media outlets, including National Review Online, the Huffington Post, Ricochet, the Washington Examiner, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Some of Trevino’s recruits were affiliated with think tanks at the time, including the Heartland Institute, the American Center for Democracy, and the Manhattan Institute, where I used to hang my hat.  However, none of these writers seem to have published their public relations contract work on think tank websites (with the possible exception of this early 2011 piece by Heartland’s Ben Domenech), nor do they appear to have used their think tank affiliations in their Malaysia bylines.

Which raises the question:  When is your night job a problem?

It’s not uncommon for a policy scholar to have a second source of income.  Young and not-so-famous think tankers are often paid barely enough to cover a modest rent and the clothes they wear for television interviews.  As a novice, I had several colleagues who held second jobs, usually tending bar.  One turned out to be a budding maestro of mixology, but others were not particularly good at their off-hours gigs.  (I personally would have been a painfully incompetent bartender.)  A think tank has no reason to look askance at its bad bartenders, because the two tasks are completely unrelated.  Bad bartending doesn’t reflect on the quality of anyone’s performance as a policy wonk.

Undisclosed public relations contract work, however, does reflect poorly on the primary professional efforts of think tank scholars.  Non-disclosure of a financial relationship with the subject of a published article violates the ethical standards of both journalists and public relations professionals.  It is therefore not surprising that National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, and the Huffington Post have disavowed the Malaysia-themed PR placements, or that the Wall Street Journal has administered a spanking to the writers involved.  There is a difference between off-duty incompetence and an off-duty ethical lapse.

Of greater concern, in my view, is the nature of the lapse.  A think tanker’s failure to disclose public relations contract work as such raises the possibility that he doesn’t see any difference between his wonkish activities—policy scholarship and opinion journalism—and paid client representation.

I used to be a litigation attorney.  I see nothing inherently ethically suspect about paid client representation.  It is just a different activity than either scholarship or journalism.  An advocate for a client takes the client’s best interests as a starting point, and then he makes the strongest possible case for them.  A client-advocate must not lie, but he is also not directly in the business of seeking the truth of a matter reasonably contested.  He is a cog in a larger epistemic process that we hope enables judges and readers to glean wisdom from the public conflict of competing interests.

This is why the mere act of hiring an outstanding lawyer doesn’t cause the public to believe that a criminal defendant is innocent.  On the contrary, if you hire a really fancy lawyer, the public tends to assume that you do, indeed, have a serious legal problem.  Similarly, if you hire a fancy public relations firm, people tend to think that you have probably done something embarrassing or unpopular.  Professional advocates can and do help their clients, but no one mistakes their public advocacy for an independent, expert appraisal.

By contrast, a think tank scholar’s opinion is thought to carry some authority, because he is not being paid to advance anyone’s interests in particular.  Wonks usually apply some combination of abstract ideological principles and well-honed analytical skills to a set of facts in an effort to illuminate the key features of a potentially confusing event.  I afford a reputable think tanker’s opinion some deference in the many policy areas in which I am not an expert, because I assume that it reflects the current sincere belief of a smart person who knows the subject matter much better than I do.

At best, public relations work is an imprudent second calling for a policy scholar, who thus debases the public currency of his expertise. Secret public relations contracts are ethically problematic, because they fool readers like me into affording the arguments of paid client-advocates the benefit of the doubt that we accord to those of independently compensated experts.   Think tanks would be wise to bar their scholars from undisclosed PR moonlighting, which diminishes institutional credibility by raising questions about whether what their scholars do on the job is really so different.  Reputationally, it seems to me that once you’re in for a shilling, you’re in for a pound.

Why Conflicts of Interest Matter

Conflicts of interest matter in the think tank world, because good research is a lot like good driving. If you are like most people, you make an honest effort to avoid getting into car accidents. You look both ways at stop signs, check your blind spot before you change lanes, and drive more slowly in rain or snow. You probably don’t drive drunk, and perhaps you, like me, no longer answer the phone behind the wheel.

Still, you don’t drive as carefully as you might, and your auto insurance policy is partly to blame. “But an accident is a dangerous, inconvenient, and humiliating event regardless of insurance,” you may protest. That’s a fair point. Almost no one who buys insurance thinks: “Awesome. Now I can get into all the car wrecks I want!” Yet, this fact—that well-insured drivers are, all else equal, more likely than others to be involved in serious auto accidents—has been proven about as well as anything can be using large-scale data sets.

Economists refer to this as a “moral hazard” effect—a term that misleadingly implies that an adequate exercise of will power can always overcome it. But that isn’t entirely true when it comes to driving, because driving well isn’t a single decision that we make by deliberately reflecting on all of the reasons that we have. Instead, good driving is an accumulation of a million tiny choices, many of which are habitual or semi-conscious. We don’t fully notice how incentives affect this complex pattern of conduct because we can’t identify every distinct decision point at which they come into play. If we tried, we’d never get out of the driveway.

Incentives influence think tank research in exactly the same way.  Every step of the research process involves thousands of tiny decisions, from the formulation of Boolean searches, to the choice of some variable’s functional form, to the book you didn’t finish because someone asked you to join them for lunch. No matter how conscientiously think tank scholars strive to do excellent research, a conflict of interest makes it likely that, in myriad tiny ways, they are doing their jobs less well. As my former colleague, Tim Lee, once wrote, “Getting the right answer is hard, and you are just less likely to do it if you have a huge financial incentive not to.”

It doesn’t follow that no conflicted research should be done, any more than the moral hazard effects of auto insurance make it the case that we shouldn’t carry any auto insurance. I carry generous auto insurance because I think that avoiding financial ruin and being able to fully compensate others for any mistakes I make behind the wheel are more important, all things considered, than a slight, subconscious reduction in my driving quality. I just believe that think tanks ought to apply that same kind of cost-benefit scrutiny to their policies concerning conflicts of interest.

When I ask think tank executives how they insulate their scholars from incentives that could undermine good research practices, they mention their “bully pulpit” strategy, their think tank’s “value proposition,” or their scholars’ “inner discipline.” Most think tank executives work admirably hard to establish a culture of honesty and excellence. In my experience, and to their credit, think tank executives and scholars usually do “the right thing” when they are faced with a clear moral dilemma. Good cultural values can make light work of the decisions that we actually notice and think about.

But culture alone isn’t enough, because conflicts of interest can subtly bias research in ways that scholars aren’t fully aware of and therefore can’t fully overcome. How can think tanks nudge their scholars in the direction of excellence? It seems to me that think tanks should steer clear of funding arrangements that create conflicts of interest if alternative arrangements are possible, and that they should establish personnel policies that protect the careers of scholars who generate disappointing answers to empirical questions. That few think tanks have established clear policies on such subjects suggests to me that they rely too exclusively on individual integrity, when they should also pay attention to the power of incentives to promote, or undermine, good research practices.

“About Us”

About Us

A word cloud of “About Us” statements from the websites of think tanks ranked in the top 10 among think tanks in the United States by the University of Pennsylvania’s 2012 Global GoTo Think Tank Report.

Image courtesy of Many Eyes.

Perspective: Sarah Rosen Wartell on Ethics, Fundraising, and “Pay for Play”

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Sarah Rosen Wartell, President of the Urban Institute, comments on ethics, fundraising, and the reputational cost of “pay for play.”  The interview took place on January 31, 2013.

You have emphasized that there are a great diversity of organizations out there that consider themselves think tanks. It is hard to talk about what think tanks do in a general sense. How do you feel that diversity is reflected in a diverse set of ethical questions or constraints? How do different institutional models raise different kinds of ethical questions?

WARTELL:  Even “ethics” is a word that has a set of value propositions implied in it. If you are an institution [that] is crystal clear that [it has] a philosophy, [that philosophy] is embedded in the mission.  It underlies the scholars that they choose, the issues that they choose, etc. Does that work therefore raise an ethical question? Inevitably, there are choices that are made about what work to initiate, what work to publish, and when to publish it. I don’t think there’s anything unethical about an institution that says that its mission is to advance a set of values to then shape its work agenda in a way that advances those values.

Transparency seems to be the key to ethical behavior in that regard. I think the risk is where people—and no institution is without its own lenses, no people are without their own lenses—where you purport to advance fact in a highly skewed way. I do think there are ethical questions there, but I don’t think that there is a problem with a particular think tank choosing to publish work that advances their agenda and not publish work that I might want to publish that advances a different vision.

I think the bigger source of ethical dilemmas in the think tank world comes from the sources of funding. [R]emember, at its founding [the Urban Institute] had very prominent corporate support. My guess is [that] in those days, it was not particularly agenda driven. That was just sort of what companies did. These days there’s a great deal of funding for think tanks that comes from the business community, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I hope that we can do a better job of participating in that as a source of revenue, particularly as a source of discretionary revenue that allows you to skate to where the puck is going to be. I also think that those relationships tend to create more information sharing.  If you tend to simply sit in your think tank, and you don’t engage with people in industry, you’re less likely to have [all the relevant] knowledge.  So, I think those financial relationships with corporations often bring a kind of knowledge and perspective [to] the institution that’s very positive.

But there are cases where the outcomes and agenda of an institution get driven by the funding sources. I take money from the Ford Foundation.  Is my agenda driven by the values of the Ford Foundation? Sure. The questions they choose to fund here affect our work. So why is it any different, and I think it is different, if Wells Fargo wants to fund us? In that case, it’s very important to create firewalls and have good judgment. It’s one thing to collect information and get perspective. It’s another thing to let anybody have review or approval over products, to let anybody fund particular products as opposed to an issue area or a set of activities, like conferences, where there’s branding and transparency of the involvement. I think some of the biggest dilemmas in the think tank world are really around this question of retaining your credibility as an institution who comes to independent conclusions without being driven by your sources of funding.

In my prior place of employ, [the Center for American Progress], we did have a corporate giving program. It was for general support. It was unrelated to any advice, etc. But there was a sort of constant churn, inevitably, when they didn’t like something that was coming out of another part of the institution. Some companies said, “Well, I don’t want to support you anymore.” Generally, they were spreading their money around town. That’s the way they do this. But sometimes it became uncomfortable for them, and they would withdraw support, and you had to have a value proposition that that’s not going to cause us to stop doing a body of work.

At different institutions, there are [other] perceptions.  When I hear people talk about different think tanks, they will tell you that this place or that place is more driven by [funding].  I think almost all of them believe that they have policies in place that protect them against being driven by funder’s agendas.  But, people will say disparagingly of a place that it’s a “pay to play” shop.  As a think tank manager, you really want to guard against the perception of that.  I don’t know that I think it’s always fair when it is [said], but I think it is one of the more prevalent ethical issues that think tanks face.

What makes something “pay for play?” Is it pre-publication review? Is it a commitment to reach a particular conclusion? Is it a focused financial interest in the outcome? I’d love to get a better handle on the concept.

WARTELL:  I’ll be honest: I haven’t thought that much about what makes something unacceptable. [T]here are occasional scandals around think tanks. I can remember, when we were starting [the Center for American Progress], it happened that some foreign government gave a great deal of money to, I want to say it was Heritage but don’t remember…

I think [that story concerned] Heritage. Frankly, the Malaysia-Heritage story and that story involving Abramoff are the only ones I know about. I wish I had better folk knowledge.

WARTELL:  I think maybe those were the only ones that ever came out at that level of reporting. I am sure that there are others where the tank took a hit reputationally. I mean, you can go out and hire any economic research firm, and a trade group will do it a lot of the time, to answer a question. The report has some credibility, absolutely, and certain firms bring more credibility than others do. That is just like government-contracted research. There is nothing illegitimate or unethical or anything about that.

Which goes back to my point: transparency. I think the key thing here is if you are doing work because a source of funds provides that work, and the source of funds has an interest in the outcome, [you are criticized if] you are not letting it be known that you have a source of funds.  A bunch of universities were criticized for taking oil sector money. I think there has probably been very similar criticism of universities around tobacco, but I don’t know for sure. There was a report published [by the Center for American Progress] called “Big Oil University,” and there was controversy around the report itself. It was about universities that had set up research shops that were funded with a great deal of [oil money].

Were they researching a subject about which oil companies have a stake?

WARTELL:  Clean energy, in many cases. You’re not going to be able to get resources to [do] that kind of work if you are not, in many cases, taking private sector money. So the real question is about whether [you have] the controls and processes in place, and universities have gone through this process with a great deal more rigor probably, of trying to figure out what their standards are.  Think about engineering schools, and the like. Tons of work [is] done that there is probably a commercial interest in for firms. Is that unethical? Again, I don’t think so. Transparency is hugely important. Healthcare research, pharmaceutical company support for drug research is huge. Think tanks are, I think, less far along in terms of the development of the jurisprudence, if you will, about how to think about this.

That’s where I’m hoping to help.

WARTELL:  Well, let me know what you think, because we are trying to figure out our own policies in this regard.

What is “Pay for Play?”

No think tank wants to be known as a “pay for play” organization, but the concept is rather like “pornography.”  People think they know “pay for play” when they see it, but its necessary and sufficient conditions remain obscure.  That’s too bad, because think tanks have a lively interest in determining exactly what “pay for play” ought to mean.  You can’t make policies about something unless you can define it.

Perhaps it is easier to say what “pay for play” is not.  The aspersion can’t simply refer to an earmarked donation from a benefactor with a passionate ideological conviction.  Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Cato Institute attract support from individuals who want to advance a particular conception of a just society, and such donors often have a favorite issue.  I used to work on education policy at Cato.  I never fundraised, but I sensed that my work was easy to support because libertarian philanthropists tend to care deeply about school reform.  Research support is not ethically suspect just because a supporter, unsurprisingly, considers the research important.

Nor is a contract between a think tank and a funder “pay for play” just because the think tank specifically agrees to answer that funder’s research question.  Such deals are usually called “contract research.”  The Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation do a lot of contract research for both public and private clients, and they receive nary a sideways glance for it.

Lack of timely disclosure is a common element of financial relationships that give rise to the occasional think tank scandal.  But all by itself, lack of disclosure seems insufficient to make a funding relationship an example of “pay for play.”  Most obviously, very small donations don’t seem to require disclosure.  The Heritage Foundation reports that it has “hundreds of thousands” of individual members, making it “the most broadly supported think tank in America.”  Heritage’s 2011 annual report lists hundreds, but certainly not hundreds of thousands, of supporters.  It doesn’t seem like a problem that the think tank does not disclose the identity of every small contributor.

Whether think tanks ought to disclose very large contributions is a more debatable question.  But even very large contributions can’t be characterized as “pay for play” if they are truly unconditional.  A posthumous gift of $1 million, conveyed anonymously by an executor to a lucky think tank, would probably be as welcome as the discovery of a buried treasure underneath the auditorium.

The term “pay for play” suggests that some sort of quid pro quo is involved—that the supporter is getting something out of the relationship besides the warm feeling of a good deed done.  The question is: what exactly is that something else?

What characteristics must a funding relationship have in order to count as “pay for play” in the think tank world?  Make your suggestions in the comments.

Perspective: Thomas Carothers on Balancing Research with Engagement in Washington, DC

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, comments on the Washington, DC think tank world, and on the challenge of striking an appropriate balance between research and media engagement.

Dr. Carothers, what are the best institutional practices and policies, in your view, for promoting scholarly integrity in a research environment that is oriented in part toward real changes in the world as opposed to simply academic exploration?

CAROTHERS:  Well, the think tank world, at least in Washington where I take part in it, is a complicated world. [There are] a lot of pressures to do different things, and there are issues about the goals of what it does and its methods. There is surprisingly little reflection on it, and certainly no oversight. It is a group of self-appointed actors who try to be useful, and try to do what they want to do, and not many people ever question what they do. So I’m glad that you are doing what you are doing, because I think it is good to reflect on it.

It is also constantly changing because of how political life in the United States is changing. The information revolution is changing what think tanks do as well. The first issue that you face at a think tank at a strategic level, and in terms of thinking about what you really want to do, is simply, what is your goal? Different think tanks have different approaches to that. Some have a fairly well-defined institutional political goal: “we have a set of political ideas that we would like to win out in political contests and American politics.” So, if Think Tank X has a particular conservative agenda, and says, “We think on these issues we would like to see the United States move this direction,” then that’s your goal. Other think tanks, on both the left and right in Washington, have a political conception of their role. We don’t, and neither do some other, I’d say some of the best think tanks in Washington.

We view our goal is somewhat broader than that. It is related to a set of principles which I think are not left/right, and not specific to Washington. They are principles about peaceful international cooperation and positive engagement of the United States with the world. I believe that the United States can be a partner in global affairs in trying to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity. That doesn’t lead you to any particular political platform or particular position and political debates, because you have reference to a higher set of principles. It also means that your target is not only US policymakers, but policymakers and international institutions, other governments, citizens in different parts of the world. Where some think tanks think, “our goal is these particular congressional committees plus these executive branch people,” we have quite a wide intended audience. Most of the policy issues we work on, there is a large policy community with very different actors working on [them]. So, you choose your goal. Then, you decide, “How are we going to achieve it?”

Research, in the narrow conception of the term, is just one part of a larger, interconnected process in which you, ideally, are trying to provide some original insight. You hopefully have a kernel of insight on some particular issue, but that has to be part of a larger process of outreach or connection to the policy community. That’s hard. Policy processes are overwhelmed with people wanting to influence them. You’re one of many different actors trying to have an impact. One of the hardest things to know in a think tank is, in sort of simple terms, what percentage of your resources do you commit to the original research versus the overall process? Is research 10%? 90%? 50% of your overall resources? You can argue in different ways that you should invest very heavily in the process in order to make whatever research you do effective. Or, you can argue it the other way, that you really need to do some first rate research — original, innovative, useful – and that’s where you should put your core. That’s a continual tension.

How does Carnegie answer that question, in terms of percentage commitment of resources?

CAROTHERS:  Well, in the past, 10, 15, or 20 years ago, I would say that there was a higher percentage of our resources generally going to the research core. But as the environment became more competitive over the years, here in Washington, and actually in every policy capital, and as communications became more complex – it’s just more of a communicative world – we spend more and more on communications and processes. Now, if you have an overall budget for a project, 20 or 30% at least would be devoted to communications.  That’s continually growing, the communications side. Communications is easier and easier, in some ways.  You can reach more people. But it’s more and more expensive as you do that. Not just the hardware, all the computers and servers, but you need to have a social media coordinator, various web coordinators, a traditional media coordinator.  You need to have Congressional outreach. You need to have a lot of different people communicating what you do to different parts of the audience. So, we try hard to keep a balance between the two. We are firmly committed to continuing to do original work.

It’s tempting not to do that and just become a process organization, so one of the pressures in Washington is, “is our name in the paper all the time? Do we see our people on television?” It becomes very easy to mistake the means for the ends, and then the means become the ends. You will have a board meeting, and there is a sheet handed to the board that says we were cited in the New York Times X times in 2012. And the board members say, “that’s great. Next year, let’s do 2X,” rather than saying, “well that’s great, but are we being cited because we’re doing really important, original research, or are we just being cited a lot because we had a great media coordinator who is constantly calling reporters? How is it that you’re getting this access and why?” There is a transition to say, let’s have lots of web hits, lots of newspaper sites, lots of television appearances rather than asking the more complicated question of, “are we making a positive contribution?” Punditry, which is, in a simple sense, being an opinion maker and being out there, is a continual temptation for think tankers—to simply be pundits rather than what I would consider serious policy researchers.

Would it be fair to consider this a sort of a moral hazard for scholars? If they are professionally rewarded and recognized for being in the media a lot, is there a temptation to spend marginally less time on deep research, in order to spend marginally more time on this kind of engagement?

CAROTHERS:  I’d say it is. I guess it’s a moral hazard. On the other hand, none is not enough. In other words, if you just have a scholar who goes into his or her office and closes the door and comes out after five years with a long, complicated book that no one ever reads, it may be beautiful and deep, but it’s useless. It is a stone thrown into the ocean that just sinks to the bottom. So it isn’t as though thinking about and working on [media engagement] is bad. It’s simply a balance and being true to your mission, and not doing it for its own sake. That’s what makes it complicated, I think. There isn’t an ideal ratio or percentage.

There are some issues for which media work is quite valuable. If there is a really fierce public debate over whether we should intervene militarily in Syria or not, getting your people out to be in the key debates on the Sunday morning talk shows is probably useful in policy terms. This is an issue on which the court of public opinion is open. On other issues, being on television is just beating a dead horse, or not all that important. Television appearances in some cases can be, I think, more useful than others. It involves qualitative, case-by-case judgments about why we are putting time and energy into certain things. It’s true that there are moral hazards, but they’re not on a simple sliding scale, where we can just say, “Be careful, don’t do this. Instead do that.” That’s what makes it tricky.