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.

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