Think tank

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A think tank (or policy institute) is an organization that conducts research and engages in advocacy in areas such as social policy, political strategy, economy, science or technology issues, industrial or business policies, or military advice.[1] Many think tanks are non-profit organizations, which some countries such as the United States and Canada provide with tax exempt status. Other think tanks are funded by governments, advocacy groups, or businesses, or derive revenue from consulting or research work related to their projects.[2]

However, this definition has been challenged by recent research on the various functions played by think tanks in different societies.[3] For instance, work in Latin America showed that think tanks can play a number of functions depending on their origins, historical development and relations to other policy actors:[4]

How a think tank addresses these largely depends on how they work, their ideology vs. evidence credentials, and the context they operate in (including funding opportunities, the degree and type of competition they face, their staff, etc.).

This functional approach addresses the inherit challenge of defining a think tank. As Simon James aptly noted in 1998, "Discussion of think tanks…has a tendency to get bogged down in the vexed question of defining what we mean by ‘think tank’ – an exercise which often degenerates into futile semantics.[5] It is better (as in the Network Functions Approach) to describe what the organisation should do. Then the shape of the organisation should follow to allow this to happen. The following framework (based on Stephen Yeo’s description of think tanks’ mode of work) in the described in Enrique Mendizabal's blog: onthinktanks.

First, think tanks may work in or based their funding on one or more ways, including:[6]

Second, think tanks may base their work or arguments on:

According to the National Institute for Research Advancement, a Japanese think tank, think tanks are "one of the main policy actors in democratic societies ..., assuring a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation".[7] A study in early 2009 found a total of 5,465 think tanks worldwide. Of that number, 1,777 were based in the United States and approximately 350 in Washington DC alone.[8]


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