Colin Talbot & Carole Talbot

Why do Think Tanks matter?

What are generally known as “Think Tanks” have been around for over a century – the oldest listed by Diane Stone, in her book on Think Tanks, is the Fabian Society, founded in 1884.

It is generally accepted that Think Tanks have grown massively in more recent decades in numbers, size and – many argue – influence. Many reasons have been given for this explosion, which we’ll discuss in a future note.

One online global register currently has 2,700 Think Tanks, or similar organizations, in their database. There appear to be about 100 across Africa, 400 each in Asia and north America, 600 in Latin America and more than a thousand across Europe (as far as central Asia).

There seem to be about 150 independent (i.e. non-government and non-University) Think Tanks in the UK.

So what are ‘Think Tanks’? The most general definition is that they are “organizations for policy analysis”. They specialize in policy analysis and only policy analysis – they do not run services or implement policies.

The usual claim is that Think Tanks engage in research and analysis of policy issues using staff with specialist expertise and knowledge of:

  • policy processes in and around government
  • one or more policy domains (e.g. housing; international relations; taxation)
  • analytical methods (e.g. qualitative or quantitative research; cost-benefit analysis; econometric modelling; evaluation)

Despite this general picture, we would argue that basic data, research and theory on Think Tanks is under-developed. We know there are a lot more of them, but we don’t know a lot about them: why they have grown; what actual policy influence they could, should or do have; how do they really work; who funds them; and so on?

There are also normative issues such as should Think Tanks be more transparent and accountable – as, for example, some argue other specialist interest lobbying organizations should be?

Here are a few of the partial and fragmentary things we do know about Think Tanks in the UK.

Thirty-oneof the UK independent Think Tanks have an income of about £65m – equivalent to about half the annual income of the three main political Parties (£111m). We do not currently have data on the other 120 or so TTs.

Some Think Tanks are completely open about where their income comes from, others completely opaque and most somewhere in-between. Even in the cases where TTs are transparent about where their money comes from, we know very little about what influence, if any, donors have over their agendas and activities.

Of the thirty or so TTs for which data was immediately available a dozen are openly ‘Right’ in their political leanings, with a combined income of over £15.5m. On the ‘Left’ there are 10 TTs with a combined income of about £12.9m. A further 9 of these TTs are avowedly politically neutral with an income of about £36m – well over half the total.

This picture is rather more politically balanced than we think most would expect, but we have no idea if this sample of 31Think Tanks out of the 150 is in any way representative?

We also know there is huge variability in how open these organizations are about their legal status.Some are registered as private corporate bodies,some as charities, others as companies, and some areregistered as both.This is key to what we might expect in terms of reporting.

Think Tank Types by Organizational Affiliation?

We would suggest there are three main types of Think Tank. First, and howthey are most often perceivedin the USA and UK as – independent organizations not directly affiliated to anything else (like a government, political party or university).

Second, policy units within government with more or less degrees of autonomy to do ‘blue skies thinking’.

And thirdly, policy institutions and centres within Universities. Some of these are generic Think Tanks, ranging over many policy areas whilst the majority are more often policy domain specific – focussing on education, health, criminal justice, urban affairs, international development, and so on.

Our initial focus will be on the 150 or so independent Think Tanks in the UK, but it is worth discussing briefly the other two types.

POLICY UNITS in Government

It has been pointed out that the term ‘Think Tank’ can mean different things in different countries – so whereas TTs usually means organizations for policy analysis outsideof government in the UK and USA, in other countries such as China or France, they may be policy units insidegovernment.

UK Governmentshavehad numerous policy units of its own. The Prime Minister’s Office, colloquially known as “No.10”, has had a ‘Policy Unit’ of some sort for decades. Some have been informally called ‘Thinks Tanks’ – such as the Central Policy Review Staff established by PM Ted Heath in 1971 – whilst others have not – such as the ‘Strategy Unit’ set up by PM Tony Blair thirty-years later in 2001 (and later copied at Departmental levels).

More recently a new type of structure has emerged – Policy Lab and a What Works Network and centres. ‘What Works’ is very much in the ‘Compare’ and ‘Choice’ phases of policy-shaping, whereas Policy Lab is more ‘experimental’ and may involved elements of all four phases?

Policy Units, Policy Labs, Strategy Units, etc, are all identifiable organizational units within Government that specialize in policy analysis. There are many more policy analysts and much more policy analysis work conducted through the normal structures of Whitehall departments. The civil service has a “policy profession” which it claims includes some 17,000 civil servants.

Only a tiny fraction of this 17,000 are organized into specialist policy analysis units, separate from general Departmental structures that deal with a range of government functions – producing laws and regulations; spending money directly and indirectly; organizing the delivery of services; and collecting and analysing information.

Generally, though, the term Think Tank in the UK is reserved for organizations for policy analysis outsideof Government.


Think Tanks in the UK and USA are also usually thought of as independent organizations. However, there are also many units within Universities that do policy shaping,analysis and advocacy, sometimes as their core activity but more often as an ancillary to their main role of developing research and expertise in specific areas of science and social science.

The UKs 160+ Universities have a lot of people who ‘do policy’. When we surveyed University of Manchester academics, back in 2012, we identified over 500 academics (roughly 10%) who did some sort of policy work.

As we have said, mostly this was contributing evidence and expertise to policymaking based on their ‘day job’ as scientists and social scientists, but there were also two dozen or more centres and institutes that played significant policy analysis roles. Sometimes these even worked ‘against’ one another – for example,there were groups both promoting and opposing nuclear power.

‘Independent’ ‘THINK TANKS’ – A Working Definition

Our proposed research will focus on ‘Independent Think Tanks’. Based on a number of sources we have developed the following working definition of these ITTs. These organizations:

  • Engage in research and analysis of policy issues using staff with specialist expertise and knowledge of:
    • Policy processes in and around government
    • One or more policy domains (e.g. housing; international relations; taxation)
    • Analytical methods (e.g. qualitative or quantitative research; cost-benefit analysis; econometric modelling; evaluation)
  • Their work includes one or more of:
    • Curating facts and opinions (but not just opinion polling)
    • Constructing possible policy options
    • Analysing and comparing policy options
    • Advocacy forparticular policy options (but excluding purely campaigning groups)
  • They publish and actively disseminate the results of their work.
  • They are not part of Government or a University (for the purposes of this analysis) or just a policy unit within, or controlled by, a particular Party, trade union or other interest group.

The ‘Strategic Choice Approach’ as an analytical framework

Apart from establishing basic demographic data about IndependentThink Tanks – itself a substantial task – it would be useful to have a framework for understanding how they contribute to public policy processes.

Screenshot 2019-06-07 at 19.24.27

We have chosen to use an adapted version of the ‘strategic choice approach’ which sees policymaking as operating in four phases that are not necessarily linear, or even all fully present, in any specific policy process.

This allows us to form working hypotheses to test against empirical data. For example, do most politically neutral Independent ThinkTanks focus on the left-hand side – shaping policy spaces and designing possible options, whereas more activist political ITTs concentrate on the right-hand side of comparing and choosing (and advocating) specific solutions?

Research Programme and Questions

So broadly we want to contribute to several strands of Think Tank research

Mapping the Independent ThinkTanksterritory?We’d like to add to cataloguing and classifying the various organisationsin the UK, developing inductively some further ideas about what sub-species exist.

Independent Think Tanks in Context– where do, or should, they fit in the Policy Process? Do they specialise in specific policy phases (as above) or ‘do it all’?

What issues do Independent ThinkTanks raise for public policy on public policy processes in democracies – for example, should they be regulated and forced to be more transparent (like lobbyists)?

Finally, we’d like to contribute to developing the UK and international Think Tank research community. And making the results as available as possible to policymakers.



We’d like to thank Diane Coyle, Mike Kenny and David Walker for comments on an earlier draft of some of these ideas.


Here are some of the on-line resources about Think Tanks.

Open Think Tank Directory

“The Open Think Tank Directory is a collaborative project organised by On Think Tanks to collect and capture a rich set of information about think tanks from all around the world. Our list currently comprises over 2700 think tanks.”

Who Funds You?

“Who Funds You? promotes funding transparency among think tanks and political campaigns with a strong public policy or research focus. We ask organisations to publish their annual income and declare their major funders.”


‘Transparify provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of major think tanks. In early 2014, we visited the websites of over 150 think tanks in over 40 countries to find out whether they provide information on who funds them and how much they receive from each source. The good news is that there already is momentum towards greater transparency. In early 2015, we followed up with a second round of ratings of the same think tanks to see whether their transparency has improved. This momentum has held for our 2016 ratings — think tanks around the world are becoming more and more transparent.”

Smart Thinking

“Smart Thinking aggregates on one platform all the latest public policy research and analysis from the leading UK think tanks of the day.

In offering this platform, Smart Thinking is curating UK think tank content for the first time, with the aim of stimulating vigorous debate and reaching as wide an audience as possible.”

Books on Think Tanks

Tessa BLACKSTONE and William PLOWDEN, Inside the Think Tank – advising the Cabinet 1971-1983 (1988)

Richard COCKETT, Thinking the Unthinkable – Think Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution 1931-1983 (1995)

Madsen PIRIE, Think Tank – The Story of the Adam Smith Institute (2012)

William PLOWDEN, Advising the Rulers, (1987)

Andrew SELLE, What Should Think Tanks Do? (2013)

Diane STONE, Capturing the Political Imagination – Think Tanks and the Policy Process (1996)

Diane STONE, Banking on Knowledge – the genesis of the Global Development Network (2000)

Diane STONE and Andrew DENHAM, Think Tank Traditions – Policy research and the politics of ideas (2004)

Carol H WEISS, Organizations for Policy Analysis – Helping Government Think (1992)

Strategic Choice

John FRIEND and Allen HICKLING, Planning Under Pressure – the strategic choice approach (1997)


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