31 January 2014

Where are think tanks coming from?

In the UK’s 2015 election campaign, now well under way I’m afraid, among the many things that the parties will throw at each other are selected conclusions reached about all manner of things by think tanks. In the last week, the Centre for Cities has been arguing for the devolution of powers to cities, the RUSI has opined on the value of the nuclear deterrent being at sea continuously, the IFS picked fault with Ed Balls’ claims about the revenue that a 50p tax rate would raise, claims made at the Fabian Society’s New Year Conference.

Most think tanks seem to be described in the media as “leading” or “respected”. Their leading lights provide articles and appear on TV and radio news programmes and before parliamentary committees, nearly always with an unquestioned assumption about their objectivity and neutrality. Think tank press releases seem to be translated into news stories – often on the front page - without very much scrutiny. Prospect Magazine has part of its website. the Prospect Think Tank Pages dedicated to them:
This website is a hub for think tanks around the world and for debate about their best new work on political, social and economic policy. It is also the home for the Prospect International Think Tank Awards, [which] set out to give credit to the independent organisations that produce the most original, influential and rigorous work on the most pressing challenges facing people, governments and businesses. The awards, described by the BBC’s Radio 4 as “the Oscars of the think tank world,” are an annual celebration of this work across the globe.
Centre for Cities, by the way, won the Prospect 2013 One to Watch award, while their UK Think Tank of the Year was the Resolution Foundation (I commented here on some work by them three years ago).

But are these think tanks as neutral as they are often portrayed? The only attempt I am aware of to assess where they stand on the political spectrum is by an economist, Andrew Whitby. His method was based on the Follow patterns of think tanks by the UK MPs who are on Twitter and he posted the resulting chart last August:

No great surprises, although few come out as strictly neutral, and worth bearing in mind in the months ahead.

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