Should we think outside the tank?

Denis Healy, then Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party, once said of a Margaret Thatcher-supporting think tank that it was ‘all tank and no think’. This critique might perhaps have pleased Michael Gove, who famously suggested during the Brexit referendum campaign that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’. In this setting, assuming that Mr Gove correctly interpreted the public mood, a public policy centre might well gather more support by boldly clothing what is just dogma in the vestments of truth: the ‘tank’ may be more congenial than the painful analysis of evidence.

Michael Gove maybe does not quite hold the view now attributed to him. But many do – some influential people, in the UK and elsewhere, are clearly exasperated by political procrastination where decision-makers are trying to get to grips with the complexities of the issues of the day. And there is a whole infrastructure of policy analysis institutes and centres, each of which is eager to offer expert advice. In the UK these include such well known names as the Centre for Policy Studies, Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, or the Social Market Foundation.

Think tanks are not of course peculiar to the UK. There are countless ones in the United States for example, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, or the Cato Institute. Interestingly a good few of the American think tanks are based in universities – such as the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, which is part of Harvard University.

In our current post-expert mood, think tanks may increasingly be seen as representing an intellectual elite casting around for reasons not to do what a majority – or at least a majority of those making noise – want to see happen. There are signs that their services are not so much appreciated by those in power or those about to assume power. Many of them rely on at least some public funding.

So what should universities do? It is my view that higher education institutions should not get involved in partisan politics, but they should offer the intellectual support that allows politicians to take reasoned decisions. In some universities this is already happening. But as think tanks may become a less popular feature of the public policy landscape, universities could pick up some of the slack. Thinking, and disseminating the thoughts, should not go completely out of fashion.

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6 Comments on “Should we think outside the tank?”

  1. no name Says:

    “[A]s think tanks may become a less popular feature of the public policy landscape, universities could pick up some of the slack. Thinking, and disseminating the thoughts, should not go completely out of fashion.”

    It is easy to agree with this, in part because it is not clear that actual expertise is out of fashion. People seem to long for actual expertise so much that they are evidently willing to undermine faith in the concept “expertise” by asking experts in one field to comment on another, for example, seeking Stephen Hawking’s views on the UK’s proposal to secede from the European Union, as if those thoughts on the topic are more profound than any other resident’s views.

    Our world is rightly weary and wary of self-declared experts and partisan think tanks that recruit into any discussion only the subset of facts and statistics that support their broader agenda. Actual experts tend to notice and address evidence that supports alternative conclusions. It is telling that news agencies purporting balanced coverage assemble alleged experts whose pronouncements reveal them to be on opposing sides of issues. It is as if they imagine that experts are individuals who lack doubt and have unfettered access to correct conclusions (or feel that the general public would think actual experts schizophrenic or insufficiently decisive). As a consequence, they appear to recruit self-proclaimed experts who are willing to perpetuate the desired image of expertise as they argue for positions that are not uniquely determined by the facts. People then, naturally, find them as reliable as partisan newspapers, with their blatant propagandizing, or toothpaste advertizements, with their pseudo-science.

    One might hope that university-based think tanks would contain less homogeneity of opinion, a lesser instinct to search for facts that support a position (as opposed to identifying facts and the positions that the facts support) than think tanks which secure their funding from other sources, but universities, too, seem to use shared strategy as a recruitment filter, alongside manifest nepotism.

    So, indeed, as long as universities engage in penetrating thought and in communicating the process and outcomes, there is some hope that positive examples of experts may continue to be available as reference points in support of the value of expertise. However, universities must be vigilant in striving for heterogeneity of careful thought rather than homogeneity.

  2. astaines Says:

    One of the fascinating features of some think thanks is the extreme opacity of their funding. Several, mostly right leaning, UK think tanks, as well as the Irish Hibernia forum, flatly refuse to provide any public data about who pays for their work.
    It’s worth reading the recent report at transparify ( which provides full details of the transparency, or otherwise, of noted think tanks across the world.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I here propose to replace the term “Think Tank” (which I’ve always deeply disliked – you cannot contain thought within a tank!) with your felicitous typo “Think Thanks”, as we should all be grateful for any kind of *thinking* taking place at this particular historical juncture!

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        I am not sure why but this discussion reminded me of this Brecht’s poem

        “General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
        It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
        But it has one defect:
        It needs a driver.

        General, your bomber is powerful.
        It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
        But it has one defect:
        It needs a mechanic.

        General, man is very useful.
        He can fly and he can kill.
        But he has one defect:
        He can think.”

        perhaps think tanks are useless unless “a mechanic can be found to make them ready to fly”, universities can be such a mechanic because the human ability to think is what should matter most.

  3. Lakoff, in “Don’t Think like an Elephant”, describes the policy of setting up right-wing partisan think tanks in order to influence policy and vocabulary, in the aftermath of Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 electoral defeat.

    Universities may well be the correct homes for think tanks devoted to objective assessment of particular kinds of issue, but should not house those pre-committed to a specific agenda.

    This is not, of course, imply neutrality when the evidence is not neutral. A university think tank on climate change, for example, would certainly proceed from the conviction that it is real, as the basis for its policy recommendations.

    • paulmartin42 Says:

      Yes, (re climate change deniers) & therein lies the drawback of University based think tanks. Ever since Oxford denied Mrs T (Woman’s Hour #1 on their Power list) there has been a nagging doubt, confirmed by Brexit, that Universities sit at one immovable point on a spectrum of conservative thought.

      As Churchill said Democracy is the least worst system of government but at least you can vote them out.

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