In January 2017, the University of Pennsylvania released the 10th anniversary edition of its Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, giving an overview of top think tank performance and sharing predictions for the future. According to the report editor, James McGann, 2016 was not the best year for think tanks around the globe; however, the worst is yet to come.
For the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report 2016, the University of Pennsylvania examined around 7,000 research institutes and thinks tanks all over the world, and the following were featured as the top 10:
- The Brookings Institution
- Chatham House
- The French Institute of International Relations
- The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS)
- The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- The RAND Corporation
- The Wilson Center
- The Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV)
- The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
Despite the fact that almost all top 10 players were able to keep their ranking positions from 2016, the report editor, James McGann, claims that global think tanks failed monumentally last year in the face of 2016’s milestone events, mainly in regards to Brexit and the US presidential election. Given the increased role of disruptive technologies, McGann believes that think tanks all over the world are going to face “existential challenges” in the future.
Josh Rogin, one of the leading columnists for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post, shares James McGann’s opinion. He considers the future of think tanks highly indeterminate, especially in the US. Rogin points out that if the Trump team continues diminishing the influence of domestic think tanks by keeping their scholars out of government, think tanks in the US will lose their relevance and policymaking will suffer. Since the US has more think tanks in the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report than any other country (around 1,800, or more than 25% of the total), “the death of US think tanks as we know them” will change the situation on a global scale.
However, there is still a beacon of hope for global think tanks, and it comes from China. Today, China is represented in the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report by 435 think tanks, which makes it the second largest ‘intellectual capital’ power in the world, and there are signs of growth.
Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics
In October 2014, the President of the People’s Republic of China, President Xi Jinping, called for the creation of new types of think tanks, stressing that creating and supporting think tanks with Chinese characteristics is one of the most important priorities for the country, because China is looking to modernise its system of governance.
As a response to this call, the major Chinese think tanks have started a process of modernisation to transform themselves into high-end think tanks with international influence. In December 2014, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) established the Chinese Evaluation Center for Humanities and Social Sciences in order to pump up both the quality and quantity of research activities in China by establishing evaluation systems, which including an evaluation system for think tanks. In 2015, the Chinese Evaluation Center for Humanities and Social Sciences presented its first Global Think Tank Ranking Report, together with a detailed description of the methodology used.
On 12 October 2016, a delegation from the Chinese Evaluation Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, headed by its Director, Prof. Jing Linbo, made a visit to a DOC Research Institute round-table. During the expert session, numerous pressing issues were discussed, including the role and place of think tanks in today’s system of governance, their impact on policy making, and existing approaches for measuring their efficiency. At the end of the visit, both parties express a strong interest in future cooperation, so as to improve the current evaluation methodology for think tank activities and achievements.
At the beginning of 2017, the Chinese Think Tanks Global Influence 2017 conference was held in Beijing, announcing a new era for Chinese think tanks and confirming the expectation that China was serious about increasing the quantity and quality of its own research. As evidence of this statement, the Chinese CEE Institute launched the first overseas think tank in Hungary, to fuel exchanges of knowledge and experience between Chinese and Eastern European experts.
Think Tanks and the Belt and Road initiative
Moreover, the latest events demonstrate a new key mission. On 14 May 2017, Mr. Liu Qibao, Head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC), announced that China was willing to work towards developing cooperative ties between Chinese and overseas think tanks for the implementation of its Belt and Road initiative.
However, there is still a long way to go. The vast majority of Chinese think tanks were simply affiliates of government departments, which engendered endemic problems, thus making their transformation a top priority before attempting to become more influential on the global stage. At the same time, most Chinese think tanks find it hard to transform themselves. Apart from difficulties with performance evaluation and research quality, Chinese think tanks encounter problems like language barriers and a shortage of talent.
All in all, it seems that today the gap between the expected and real performance of global think tanks continues to grow, as existing think tanks have proven their inability to satisfy the demands of the global community. Last year was full of events showing that global think thanks should undergo fundamental changes, while the demand for high quality research and evidence-based up policy making is increasing in these unsettling times. The uncertain situation of think tanks in the West and the increased interest in think tanks in the East provokes the thought that in the coming decades, Chinese think tanks may gain more international influence. In doing so, their pursuit of Chinese national interests and maintenance of Chinese cultural norms, meanwhile implementing the best Western practices, will lead them to produce their own, unique way of conducting policy research.
Moreover, both Western and Eastern think tanks today face profound technological challenges that make their future even more indeterminate. In 2015, in his article “The Digital Think Tank”, Mike Connery covered the fundamental digital practices that think tanks around the globe should put into action to push themselves into the new era. In 2016, this list was expanded to include social media, which has become one of the most important tools of public opinion research. Further, the use of big data and artificial intelligence may become a must for think tanks and research institutions in the near future, accelerating decision making and improving their ability to meet the global community’s demands.