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A recent leadership struggle at the Cato Institute and a changing-of-the-guard at the Heritage Foundation have sparked a lively public debate about what think tanks do, how they do it, and about whether or not it is possible to do what think tanks do in an ethical manner. This blog will explore that last question from an optimistic perspective:  that it is possible for think tanks to maintain high ethical standards, and that most think tank executives and scholars on all parts of the political spectrum strive conscientiously to do so.  I am less certain that those of us in the public policy world know as much as we would like to know about how to accomplish this goal.

Different think tanks have vastly different institutional missions, cultures, and funding arrangements, but all appear to share a central challenge: reconciling scholarly aspirations with the imperative of relevance.

On one hand, think tank research usually aspires to be scholarly in the sense that it makes a new contribution to the public policy debate.  Wonks need not use methods associated with traditional academic disciplines, and indeed academic methods are often unsuitable for answering broad, practical questions about what to do.   Nonetheless, policy analysis is a highly-skilled job.  Tasks such as modelling a particular legal, social, or economic process, gathering and presenting new information about the prevalence of some social problem, or predicting the likely effect of a proposed reform can be done well or poorly by a set of fairly objective standards, and doing them well is the only way to come up with useful new insights.

Principled political commitments can and do inform empirical inquiry.  They are often the basis for deeming a research question important, and they are relevant to a scholar’s ultimate recommendations.  But they can’t replace empirical inquiry.  For this reason, I believe that insofar as think tanks hold themselves out to be engaged in the pursuit of new policy knowledge, they have an institutional obligation to establish working conditions for scholars that foster and reward good epistemic practices.

Think tank executives work very hard to accomplish this task, but it is an inherently challenging one, because think tanks are not supposed to produce brilliant analyses that no one reads.  They are on a mission to change the world we live in by producing research with “impact.”  Think tank scholars are thus expected to publish work that gets attention from the media and serious consideration from policymakers.  If there is no constituency within these two groups that is receptive to a scholar’s findings, those findings may receive little notice, leaving that scholar’s career languishing.

It can also be professionally dangerous for think tank scholars to generate findings that attract the wrong kind of notice, or which are are deemed helpful to the wrong people.  Some think tanks are more explicitly committed than others to advancing a particular notion of a just society through their work.  But insofar as all think tanks are committed to doing work that has an impact on public policy, it’s implausible that even the most ecumenical “university without students” is utterly institutionally indifferent to the kind of impact its scholars have.  Because public policies affect people’s lives, such indifference might even be considered irresponsible.  A think tank has a legitimate interest in choosing to support research that is likely to advance its institutional conception of positive social change.  Moreover, insofar as it solicits donations on this basis, it has an obligation to its supporters to do so.

These institutional imperatives, however reasonable, create a moral hazard for think tank scholars.  To be ethical, a think tank scholar must adhere to good epistemic practices regardless of where they lead her.  To be successful, she must generate findings that will interest constituencies in media and government and arrive at conclusions that do not appear to undermine her employer’s overarching institutional commitment to advance the cause of a just and humane society.  In my experience, scholars work very hard to maintain good research practices amid potentially conflicting professional imperatives.  But it is not always an easy task, and widespread reluctance to discuss this challenge can give rise to a sense of isolation that makes it more difficult.

I hope that this blog kindles a constructive conversation within the public policy community about how best to meet the ethical challenges of our work, because think tanks are valuable institutions.  While academics often focus on methodological minutiae, think tank scholars address pressing public questions.  While academics sometimes conceal the ideological convictions that inform their research, think tank scholars freely disclose their prior commitments.  While academics frequently write only for each other, think tank scholars magnify the impact of important, university-based research by translating it for a more general audience.  I’ve spent most of my career as a think tank scholar because I believe that think tanks have an important positive impact on the policy-making process that academia cannot replicate or replace.

I decided to start writing about think tank ethics because I believe that a community of smart, high-minded people who have a complicated ethical challenge in common can figure out how to meet that challenge even better if we talk to each other about it.  This blog will offer news analysis of events related to think tank ethics and governance, highlights from interviews with some of the many leading think tank executives and scholars who have generously shared their time and insight with me, and some preliminary analyses and proposals about which I’d like to receive feedback before they become part of the book that I will soon begin to write on this subject.  Please keep me on my toes with critical engagement in the comments or, better yet, at your own personal or institutional blog.  A competition of ideas on the subject of think tank ethics and governance can only benefit the institutions on which so many of us in think tanks, academia, government, media, or philanthropy rely for professional fulfillment, research, insight, or positive social change.