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.

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