The Evolution of the Think Tank

There has been some debate about think tanks among conservative bloggers recently, with several suggesting that they are no longer contributing meaningfully to policy debate. They have become too superficial, too dependent on the short op-ed article at the expense of original research, it has been charged. Such criticism, however, simply misunderstands what think tanks are all about.

Think tanks are not a new phenomenon. Organizations like the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute have been around for many decades. Virtually every major university has several affiliated think tanks. Perhaps the best known is the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

What is relatively new, however, is the particular type of think tank exemplified by the Heritage Foundation, which adopted a much more overtly political approach to research, with a heavier emphasis on outreach for its work, both in government and the media.

Historically, think tanks were like universities without the teaching. Scholars who preferred research to lecturing or whose interests were narrowly focused gravitated to think tanks. But they were still expected to maintain the same academic standards that applied to those in academia.

Brookings is still the best example of this. Its scholars are often world-renowned experts whose work appears in top academic journals. Books by Brookings scholars are often definitive. For many years, the late Joseph Pechman’s book on federal tax policy was the best in the field, and Brookings largely set the agenda on that subject for a generation.

Brookings has always had a moderately liberal tilt. The American Enterprise Institute was established as a moderately conservative alternative. Democratic administrations often drew upon the former for policy staff, while Republicans did so from the latter.

What Heritage did that was so different was to engage in policy in a much more aggressive way. While a Brookings book might be the authoritative statement on a subject, it required an enormous amount of time and money to produce. It might take many years to write. In the end, it would only be read by a few committee staffers in Congress or at the Congressional Research Service. Meanwhile, the legislative process would travel its own path, often oblivious to the scholarly research on the subject.

The people who founded Heritage had a different idea. They had worked in Congress and knew that congressmen, senators and staff people only had a limited amount of time to absorb ideas and information. A short paper that merely summarized existing research was far more useful than a book-length treatise. And a paper that arrived in the midst of congressional debate was infinitely more valuable than a book that didn’t appear until after the final vote.

So rather than staff itself with expensive, world-renowned scholars, Heritage looked for young people just out of graduate school, often seeking their first job. It intentionally paid them poorly in order to encourage them to move on to jobs in Congress or the administration. This created a built-in network for Heritage’s work and provided intelligence on what issues needed to be studied and when they were needed for maximum impact.

No pretense was made that the research was original or even thorough. It was more important to get 80 percent of it out in time to influence debate than wait to get 100 percent, if it wouldn’t be available until it was too late. Heritage staff was encouraged to draw upon the work of top-level conservative scholars, whose work was connected to Heritage through a resource bank.

The Heritage model was extremely innovative. When I worked there, there were occasions when an issue would pop up in the morning, I would quickly write a brief analysis, and it would be copied and distributed on Capitol Hill the same day. Today, with the Internet, we take this sort of thing for granted. But in the 1980s, it was the equivalent of moving at supersonic speed, while traditional think tanks were still in the horse-and-buggy era.

Another Heritage innovation was heavily marketing its work in the media, where its short, timely analyses were popular with reporters for the same reason they were effective on Capitol Hill. Most think tanks in that era made little effort to promote their work or make it accessible to the media.

The Heritage lesson has been learned by other think tanks, and even Brookings and AEI now produce many short papers, written and distributed rapidly, and engage in extensive outreach to Congress and the media. Whatever has been lost in thoroughness is more than made up for by greater effectiveness.


Correction: In my last column, I understated the number of presidential vetoes by neglecting to include pocket vetoes. The correct totals are these: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 635; John F. Kennedy, 21; Lyndon Johnson, 30; Jimmy Carter, 31; and George H.W. Bush, 44.