A think tank (also called a policy institute) is an organization, institute, corporation, or group 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. Many think tanks are non-profit organizations, which some countries such as the US and Canada provide with tax exempt status. While many think tanks are funded by governments, interest groups, or businesses, some think tanks also derive income from consulting or research work related to their mandate.
There are different opinions about think tanks; supporters like the National Institute for Research Advancement, itself a think tank, hail them as "one of the main policy actors in democratic societies ..., assuring a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation".
Since "think tank" is a term that has only found use since the 1950s, there is still some debate over what constitutes the first think tank. One candidate is the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), founded in 1831 at the initiative of the Duke of Wellington. Another is the Fabian Society of Britain, founded in 1884 to promote gradual social change. The Brookings Institution, founded in the US in 1916 is another candidate for the first think tank. The term think tank itself, however, was originally used in reference to organizations that offered military advice, most notably the RAND Corporation, formed originally in 1946 as an offshoot of Douglas Aircraft and which became an independent corporation in 1948.
Until around 1970, there were no more than several dozen think tanks, mostly focused on offering non-partisan policy and military advice to the United States government, and generally with large staffs and research budgets. After 1970, the number of think tanks exploded, as many smaller new think tanks were formed to express various ideological views.
Until the 1940s, most think tanks were known only by the name of the institution. During the Second World War, think tanks were referred to as "brain boxes" after the slang term for the skull. The phrase "think tank" in wartime American slang referred to rooms in which strategists discussed war planning. The first recorded use of the phrase to refer to modern think tanks was in 1959, and by the 1960s the term was commonly used to describe RAND and other groups assisting the armed forces. In recent times, the phrase "think tank" has become applied to a wide range of institutions, and there are no precise definitions of the term. Marketing or public relations organizations, especially of an international character, sometimes refer to themselves as think tanks, for example.
Think tanks represent a variety of ideological perspectives. Some think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, are clearly aligned with conservative causes. Others, especially those focused on social and environmental reforms, such as the Tellus Institute, are viewed as clearly liberal. Still others, such as the Cato Institute, promote libertarian social and economic reforms.
A new trend, resulting from globalization, is collaboration between think tanks across continents. For instance, the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, collaborates with Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Qatar for an initiative on West-Islam relations. Also in the area of West-Islam relations, Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India, works closely with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament. The World Economic Forum has created a Council of 100 Leaders on West-Islam relations, which brings together heads of major global think tanks ranging from Oxford Islamic Centre at Oxford University to Strategic Foresight Group, Observer Research Foundation,CASS-India, CSDS, Centre for Policy Research, ETC in Delhi of India and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.
In 2008 the term 'Tankette' usually used by the military was used by education.au to describe a mini Think Tank that was to be held online. A tankette has similar features to a traditional Think Tank, but generally has fewer participants (around 10), and is held online using some kind of web-based software to enable real-time collaboration and 'think-tanking'.
Critics such as Ralph Nader have suggested that, because of the private nature of the funding of think tanks, their results are biased to a varying degree. Some argue members will be inclined to promote or publish only those results that ensure the continued flow of funds from private donors.
Some critics go further to assert think tanks are little more than propaganda tools for promoting the ideological arguments of whatever group established them. They charge that most think tanks, which are usually headquartered in state or national seats of government, exist merely for large-scale lobbying to form opinion in favor of special private interests. They give examples such as organizations calling themselves think tanks having hosted lunches for politicians to present research that critics claim is merely in the political interest of major global interests such as Microsoft, but that the connections to these interests are never disclosed. They charge, as another example, that the RAND Corporation issues research reports on national missile defense that accelerate investment into the very military products being produced by the military manufacturers who control RAND. Critics assert that the status of most think-tanks as non-profit and tax exempt makes them an even more efficient tool to put special interest money to work. The Discovery Institute has generated a great deal of controversy by injecting the controversial concept of intelligent design into public debate.
In some cases, corporate interests have found it useful to create "think tanks" that are thinly disguised vehicles for corporate propaganda. For example, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was formed in the mid 1990s to dispute research finding a link between second-hand smoke and cancer. According to an internal memo from Philip Morris, "the credibility of the EPA is defeatable, but not on the basis of ETS (environmental tobacco smoke) alone. It must be part of a larger mosaic that concentrates all the EPA's enemies against it at one time."
In Germany all of the major parties are loosely associated with research foundations that play some role in shaping policy, but generally from the more disinterested role of providing research to support policymakers than explicitly proposing policy.
Just like in Germany, all of the major parties in the Netherlands are associated with research foundations that play a role in shaping policy.
In Spain, think tanks are progressively raising their public profile. The most influential Spanish think tank is the Elcano Royal Institute, created in 2001 following the example of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the UK, and to some extent linked to the Government in power. More independent and also influential are the CIDOB founded in 1973; and FRIDE (Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior) established in 1999 by Diego Hidalgo and main driving force behind projects such as the Club de Madrid, a group of democratic former heads of state and government, or the Foreign Policy Spanish Edition. Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar presides over the FAES Fundación para el Analisis y los Estudios Sociales, a policy institute that is associated with the conservative Popular party PP. For its part, the Fundación Alternativas is independent but close to left-wing ideas. Nevertheless, The Socialist party PSOE is now in the process of creating a new think tank called Fundación Ideas.
Turkish think tanks are relatively new. Many of them are sister organizations of a political party or a company. University think tanks are not typical think tanks. Most of Turkish think tanks provide research and ideas yet they play less important roles in policy making when compared with the American think tanks.
Think tanks in the United States play a role in forming both foreign and domestic policy. Think tanks in the United States generally receive funding from private donors, and members of private organizations. Think tanks may feel more free to propose and debate controversial ideas than people within government. The media watchgroup Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has identified the top 25 think tanks by media citations, noting that from 2006 to 2007 the number of citations declined 17%. The FAIR report reveals the ideological breakdown of the citations: 37% conservative, 47% centrist, and 16% progressive. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that it is the most cost-effective of the think tanks, measured by the citations per $10,000 budgeted.
Although think tanks span the political spectrum, liberal critics charge that conservative think tanks are far more prevalent than their progressive counterparts. To this, conservatives respond that liberals are present in greater numbers on university faculties. In an annual survey, the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) lists the 25 think tanks most often cited in the mainstream media. Their data for 2006 show that the most-cited think tank was the Brookings Institution, followed by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Of these top five, the FAIR regards the first two as centrist and the next three as conservative. Regarding media citations of think tanks more generally, the FAIR found 45% to be centrist, 40% conservative or center-right, and 16% liberal or center-left.
Government think tanks are also important in the United States, particularly in the security and defense field. These include the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Institute for Homeland Security Studies, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, at the National Defense University; the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College and the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.
The government funds, wholly or in part, activities at approximately 30 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). FFRDCs, are unique independent nonprofit entities sponsored and funded by the U.S. government to meet specific long-term technical needs that cannot be met by any other single organization. FFRDCs typically assist government agencies with scientific research and analysis, systems development, and systems acquisition. They bring together the expertise and outlook of government, industry, and academia to solve complex technical problems. These FFRDCs include the MITRE Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Aerospace Corporation and others organizations supporting various departments within the U.S. Government.
Similar to the above quasi-governmental organizations are Federal Advisory Committees. These groups, sometimes referred to as commissions, are a form of think tank dedicated to advising the US Presidents or the Executive branch of government. They typically focus on a specific issue and as such, might be considered similar to special interest groups. However, unlike special interest groups these committees have come under some oversight regulation and are required to make formal records available to the public. Approximately 1,000 these advisory committees are described in the FACA searchable database
The Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) acts as the Egyptian cabinet think tank. Its mission is "to impartially support the government decisions through advice on best policy scenario mix and analytical research to improve the socio-economic well-being of the Egyptian society."
Ghana's first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, set up various state-supported think tanks in the 1960s such as the Cocoa Research Institute and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. By the 1990s, a variety of policy research centers sprang up in Africa set up by academics who sought to influence public policy in Ghana. The input of such centers has become significant in the public's discourse on policy issues in contemporary Ghana.
Russian think tanks have experienced a precipitous decline over the past five years. Think tanks under the Soviet Union, analogous to their American counterparts, grew to play a significant role in strategic policy formation. During the era of glasnost, begun by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and continuing under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, public think tanks and policy organizations underwent a brief blooming. However, as economic problems intensified under Yeltsin, and political pressure on public organizations grew under President Vladimir Putin, most of the Russian think tanks have withered away while those who stood closer to Kremlin saw a recent revival.
There are also about 20-30 "independent" Australian think tanks, which are funded by private sources. The best-known of these think tanks play a much more limited role in Australian public and business policy making than in the United States. However, in the past decade the number of think tanks has increased substantially.