catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Paymasters in the war of ideas

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James G. McGann argues that America’s think tanks have been drawn into an "uncivil war of ideas between conservative and liberal ideologues" — a war which risks undermining their credibility.

In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Examiner McGann reported that: "Data collected from 34 of the leading U.S. think tanks found that the rise in partisan politics — and the pressure to align politically — is polarizing Washington think tanks and compromising the quality of their debate and research." Contributing to this pressure is the behaviour of donors:

Because much of the money coming into think tanks has been donor-defined, project-specific grants, these institutions have been forced to narrow their research agendas and time horizons to meet the dictates of donors. Project-specific grants are most damaging when the donor directly or indirectly uses targeted funding to influence the research agenda of an institution or, worse, the research findings. Even more insidious are donors who try to distort the magnitude of a problem or attempt to alter the course of politics by flooding the marketplace of ideas with money that funds their issues or world view. These distortions in the free market of ideas are hindering the ability of think tanks to produce innovative ideas and new research on truly important emerging issues. Think tanks now have a tendency to move away from the kind of research that focuses on understanding problems and toward an increased emphasis on prescription, so that they can demonstrate their impact to donors. While many donors operate in the public interest, there are those partisans on the right and the left who serve as the paymasters in the war of ideas. Why should donors, who are neither the users or producers of policy research – and who may not be acting in the public interest – determine the research agendas of think tanks?

Scholars must be allowed to do research without having donors looking over their shoulders trying to dictate the scope and nature of their work. Donors must develop more transparent mechanisms for evaluating and making grants to think tanks and think tanks must be more transparent about where their money comes from and how it is used.

McGann’s 2004 report ‘Scholars, Dollars and Policy Advice’ is available from the Foreign Policy Research Institute (172K MS Word document).


Written by Admin

November 13, 2005 at 9:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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