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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, science or technology issues, industrial or business policies, or military advice.[1] Many think tanks are non-profit organizations, which in some countries such as the US and Canada provides them 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.

While the National Insititute for Research Advancement hails think tanks as "... one of the main policy actors in democratic societies", which assure a "... pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation"[2], critics of think tanks have called them "little more than public relations fronts...generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors." [3] Critics such as Ralph Nader argue that think tanks' results are biased to a varying degree.


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 partisan, political, and 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.

Types of think tanks

Some think tanks are clearly aligned with conservative or libertarian approaches to the economy (The Cato Institute, for example), while others, especially those with an emphasis on progressive social and environmental reforms (Tellus Institute, for example), are viewed as more liberal or left-of-center.

A new trend, resulting from globalisation, 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, CSDS, Centre for Policy Research, ETC in Delhi of India and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.


The nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch website argues that think tanks are organizations "...that clai[m] to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues...are little more than public relations fronts...generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors." It calls think tanks "phony institutes where ideologue~propagandists pose as academics ... [into which] money gushes like blood from opened arteries to support meaningless advertising's suffocation of genuine debate"."[4] SourceWatch argues that a think tank's research findings can tend to be in "...accordance with the interests of its funders." SourceWatch claims that an "...important functions of think tanks is to provide a backdoor way for wealthy business interests to promote their ideas or to support economic and sociological research not taking place elsewhere that they feel may turn out in their favor."

SourceWatch comments that while think tank's researchers have "... titles such as "senior fellow" or "adjunct scholar," but this does not necessarily mean that they even possess an academic degree in their area of claimed expertise." SourceWatch claims that "think tanks are like universities...minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought. Real academics are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is often reversed at most policy-driven think tanks."[5]

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. This risk of distortion similarly threatens the reputation and integrity of organizations such as universities, once considered to stand wholly within the public sector. Defenders state that think tanks arose to challenge the liberal orthodoxy of the universities in place starting in the 1970s.

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.

In recent years, many think tanks have begun to promote causes which are contrary to established scientific opinion. For example, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was formed in the mid 1990s as part of the tobacco industry's attempt to cast doubt on EPA studies showing that secondhand smoke could cause cancer.[2] 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." [3]

The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition has also worked to cast doubt on the scientific consensus regarding human-caused global warming, as have a number of conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute--all of whom receive large contributions from petroleum industry companies like ExxonMobil and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10] The Discovery Institute has put the idea of Intelligent design into public debate, even though most biologists do not accept the theory as scientific.[11][12][13]

United States Think Tanks

Think tanks in the United States play an important role in forming both foreign and domestic policy. Typically, an issue such as national missile defense will be debated within and among think tanks and the results of these debates will influence government policy makers. 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.

Though there are think tanks in every part of the political spectrum, conservative think tanks outnumber their centrist and liberal/progressive counterparts. For example, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) released a report in 2006 which listed the 25 think tanks which were mentioned most often in the mainstream media news in 2005. The most-mentioned think tank was the centrist or center-left Brookings Institution. The next two most-mentioned think tanks--the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, are conservative while the fourth, the Cato Institute, is libertarian. Of media citations, a plurality, 47% were centrist, while 40% were conservative and 13% were progressive. [14]


Modern neoconservatism is associated with some of the foreign policy initiatives of think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The Claremont Institute and the Heritage Foundation are more traditional conservative think tanks.

  • American Enterprise Institute
  • Claremont Institute
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute
  • Project for the New American Century
  • Heritage Foundation
  • Hoover Institution for War, Revolution, and Peace
  • Hudson Institute


On the other side of the political spectrum are think tanks such as the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. Economic Policy Institute is a prominent liberal think tank whose research emphasizes interests of low-income and middle-income workers. Other think tanks include Brookings Institution, a center-left organization.

  • Brookings Institution
  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Center for American Progress
  • Center for Economic and Policy Research
  • Center for Progressive Reform
  • Economic Policy Institute
  • Institute for Policy Studies
  • Political Economy Research Institute
  • Progressive Policy Institute
  • Public Citizen
  • New America Foundation


In order to retain non-profit tax-exempt status most think tanks, including the conservative Heritage Institute and the center-left Brookings Institution, claim nonpartisan status. Other institutions are officially and unofficially nonpartisan. These include the Atlantic Council of the United States and Center for Strategic and International Studies, non-partisan foreign policy-oriented organizations, the Institute for Collaborative Engagement, a non-partisan internationally-focused organization, and the The Lincoln Square Institute, a non-partisan presidential election forum. The Roosevelt Institution is pushing the think tank model by attempting to organize university and college student bodies into effective think tanks.

  • Atlantic Council of the United States
  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Council on Foreign Relations
  • Urban Institute
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


The most prominent is the Cato Institute, a libertarian or "free-market liberal" think tank. The Mises Institute, focusing on libertarian economic education.

  • Cascade Policy Institute
  • Cato Institute
  • Mises Institute


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.

Chinese think tanks

In the People's Republic of China a number of think tanks are sponsored by governmental agencies but still retain sufficient non-official status to be able to propose and debate ideas more freely. Indeed, most of the actual diplomacy between China and the United States has taken the form of academic exchanges between members of think tanks.

Hong Kong think tanks

  • Civic Exchange co-founded by Christine Loh in 2000
  • Hong Kong Policy Research Institute Ltd.
  • Hong Kong Transition Project
  • HKU Pop Site
  • One Country Two Systems Research Institute
  • Social and Economic Policy Institute
  • SynergyNet
  • The Lion Rock Institute
  • Savantas Policy Institute

In Hong Kong, those early think tanks established in the late 1980s and early 1990s including Hong Kong Transition Project, Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and The One Country Two Systems Research Institute focused on the political development including first direct Legislative Council members election in 1991 and the political framework of “One Country, Two Systems” manifested in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. After the return of sovereign to the Mainland China in 1997, more and more think tanks were established by various groups of intellectuals and professionals. They have various missions and objectives including promoting civic education; undertaking research on economic social and political policies (the mission of the Civic Exchange); promoting “public understanding of and participation in the political, economic, and social development of the Hong Kong SAR” (one of the objectives of Savantas).

European think tanks

United Kingdom

In Britain, think tanks play a similar role to the United States, attempting to shape policy, and indeed there is some cooperation between British and American think tanks. Some of the major UK think tanks include RUSI, Chatham House, IISS, Policy Exchange, the Globalisation Institute, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Demos, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Bruges Group and the Centre for European Reform.

See also: List of UK think tanks.


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. The foundations are:

  • Associated with the CDU is the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (in German, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung);
  • The CSU is associated with the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung);
  • The SPD is associated with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung);
  • The Free Democratic Party (Germany) is associated with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung);
  • The Alliance '90/The Greens are associated with the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung);
  • The Left Party is associated with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung).

For a comprehensive list of German (and European) think tanks with information on organisation, funding, research areas and job opportunities visit the 'Think Tank Directory' [15]


In Italy, in the Venices, the Venezie Institute is the first free-market think tank, founded in 2005. It aims to bring about institutional, social and economic changes in the Venices based on the traditional Venetian principles of free enterprise, institutional integrity, limited government and individual liberty. It is completely independent of any political party, religious or economic interest group. Its motto: "Pro Bono Publico".


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 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 (including Clinton, Gorbachev, Cardoso or Delors) who provide counsel to governments and institutions all over the world or the Foreign Policy Spanish Edition. Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar presides over the FAES Fundacion para el Analisis y los Estudios Sociales, a think tank that is associated with the Partido Popular.


Bruegel is a Brussels-based European think tank devoted to international economics. It is funded by 16 EU member states and 28 private corporations.

In Ireland, the Institute of European Affairs is a leading contributor to European debate on climate change, security, policy and economic issues.

In Switzerland, Avenir Suisse (which proposes a free-market liberalism agenda) is the only think tank that is currently active.

In Denmark, the Copenhagen Institute is the first free-market think tank, founded in 2003. In 2004 high-profile representatives of Danish academia, business, media and the arts founded the free-market think tank CEPOS, which has had enormous success in setting a new agenda in the Danish welfare debate.

In Sweden, the Eudoxa think tank has successfully introduced a combination between studies of free-market ideas, emerging technologies, technological and environmental foresight. Most famous among the Swedish think tanks is Timbro, a free market think tank.

In Portugal, a very important think tank, is Compromisso Portugal, based on young entrepreneurs and academists aiming to contribute to the debate of ideas how to develop Portugal.

In Greece, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement(PASOK), is affiliated with the 'Institute of Developing Policies, Andreas Papandreou', ΙΣΤΑΜΕ.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe has seen a number of new think tanks arise and some of them are already playing a role in the forming of government policy.

In Poland, there are several think tanks. The most known of them are Instytut Spraw Publicznych, Polski Instytut Spraw Międzynarodowych, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich, DemosEuropa and Instytut Sobieskiego. Think tanks connected with economical reforms are the liberal Centrum im. Adama Smitha, Centrum Analiz Społeczno-Ekonomicznych (CASE).

Other countries


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.


Think tanks in Turkey are relatively new business. Many of them are sister organisations of a political party or a company. University think tanks are not typical think tanks. Turkish think tanks provide research and ideas yet they play less important roles in policy making when compared with the American think tanks. Among the most important think tanks in Turkey are the following:

  • SAREM (Ankara) is one of the more influential think-tanks in Turkey. It is close to Turkish Armed Forces. It has a well-connected network of individuals, and has members from both the military and Turkish academics.
  • TESEV (Istanbul) is a liberal research center in Istanbul. Despite a great amount of influence and reach among the business elites and public opinion, it has a lesser affect on political circles.
  • USAK (Ankara) In English, the organization calls itself International Strategic Research Organization, ISRO. On the website, it is claimed that "ISRO is not intended to be a forum for single-issue advocacy or lobbying." It was established in 2004 and is an umbrella organization with 9 research centers. It is liberal and close to the Turkish diplomatic circles, military and political circles. Sponsored by the business community and member donations.
  • SETA (Ankara) Established in 2006 and suspected of being close to the Turkish Government. It is known to be conservative.
  • ASAM (Ankara) Nationalist and militarist. Sponsored by the nationalist military circles and close to certain factions within the Turkish Armed Forces. The acronym stands for 'Eurasia Strategic Research Center' in Turkish.
  • TASAM (Istanbul) stands for Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies
  • TUSAM (Ankara) Leftist nationalist is the Strategic Research Center for National Security. It is close to the leftist, nationalist military circles.
  • TEPAV (Ankara) Economic Policy Resarch Institute Established in 2004. Supported by The Union of Chambers of Turkey (TOBB). Working on economy, foreign policy and governance issues. Close to business world and has liberal way of thinking. It has a wide public following and some degree of policy influence.


Econotrend is an Iranian thinktank headed by Seyed Muhammad Adeli. [ASEF] is the oldest think tank in Iran. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

ICC's -International Chamber of Commerce- official agent in Iran (called Iranian National Committee) leads business Think Tanks in Iran to handle Iranian ICC members' corporation with the ICC center in Paris.


  • Instituto Liberdade Instituto Liberdade is a conservative/libertarian Brazilian Think Tank, formed by intellectual entrepreneurs and funded by private sources.


Most Australian think tanks are based at universities - for example, the Melbourne Institute - or are government funded - for example, the Productivity Commission or the CSIRO.

There are also about 20-30 "independent" Australian think tanks, which are funded by private sources. The best-known of these are:

  • The Evatt Foundation
  • The Australia Institute
  • The Centre for Independent Studies
  • The Institute of Public Affairs
  • The Lowy Institute
  • The Committee for Economic Development of Australia
  • The Sydney Institute
  • The National Civic Council (NCC)
  • The Australian Institute of Employment Rights
  • Per Capita[6]

Think tanks play much more limited role on Australian public and business policy making than in the United States. However, in the past decade the number of think tanks has increased substantially.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is also now active.

New Zealand

The Centre for Strategic Studies New Zealand exists within Victoria University of Wellington. There is also the Maxim Institute in Auckland.


  • Asia Pacific Foundation
  • Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
  • Atlantic Provinces Economic Council
  • Caledon Institute of Social Policy
  • Canada West Foundation
  • Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Canadian Economics Association
  • Canadian Labour and Business Centre (shut down as of Sept. 29, 2006) [7]
  • Canadian Institute for Advanced Research
  • Canadian Policy Research Networks
  • C.D. Howe Institute
  • Le Centre canadien d’étude et coopération internationale
  • Centre for Cultural Renewal
  • Centre for Foreign Policy Studies
  • Centre for International Governance Innovation
  • Centre for Trade Policy and Law
  • Centre for the Study of Living Standards
  • Centre on Governance
  • Chantier de l'économie sociale
  • The Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance
  • Conference Board of Canada
  • Couchiching Institute of Public Affairs
  • Fireweed Democracy Project
  • Fraser Institute
  • GPI Atlantic
  • International Policy Forum
  • Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique
  • Institute for Citizen-Centred Service
  • Institute for Research on Public Policy
  • Institute for Canadian Values
  • Institute of Public Administration of Canada
  • Institute on Governance
  • Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues
  • Mackenzie Institute
  • Metamode Institute on Public Policy
  • Montreal Economic Institute
  • North-South Institute
  • The Parliamentary Centre
  • Pearson-Shoyama Institute
  • Public Policy Forum
  • Transportation Research Board
  • Unisféra International Centre
  • Work Research Foundation


  1. see The American Heritage Dictionary. "Think Tank." 2000. and Merriam Webster's Dictionary. "Think Tank."
  6. The Age, April 17, 2007: "New think tank to help swing ideas from right to left" [1]

See also

Additional reading

  • Goodman, John C. "What is a Think Tank?" National Center for Policy Analysis, 2005.[16]
  • Abelson, Donald E. Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002.
  • Callahan, David. "The Think Tank As Flack, How Microsoft and other corporations use conservative policy groups", Washington Monthly (November 1999).[17]
  • Richard Cockett, Thinking the unthinkable : think tanks and the economic counter revolution ; 1931 - 1983, London : Fontana, 1995
  • Fan, Maureen. "Capital Brain Trust Puts Stamp on the World", Washington Post (16 May 2005): B01.[18]
  • Patrick Dixon. Futurewise - Six Faces of Global Change - issues covered by Think Tanks and methodology for reviewing trends, impact on policy 2003): Profile Books
  • Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Kinau, Jacques. "Start Your Own Tax Exempt Think Tank: Effective Self-Defense Against Corporate and Political Donor Class Tax Predation" [19]
  • Morgan, Dan. "Think Tanks: Corporations' Quiet Weapon", Washington Post (29 January 2001): A1.[20]
  • Stone, Diane, and Andrew Denham, eds. Think Tank Traditions: Policy Research and the Politics of Ideas. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

External links

French Observatory of Think Tanks, Analysis and articles on Européans and French TT. 

Examples of think tanks:

  • The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank based in California, publisher of the Claremont Review of Books
  • The Lincoln Square Institute, a Chicago based, bipartisan think tank, publisher of the online Campaign Power Rating
  • The Atlantic Council of the United States, Washington DC based, a bipartisan, foreign policy-oriented think tank
  • Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, DC think tank focused on domestic and international economic policy
  • The Council on Foreign Relations, New York and Washington DC based, a foreign policy-making think tank
  • The Forum Alpinum
  • The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Washington, D.C.
  • Institute of European Affairs, a European policy think-tank, examining climate change, security & economics, based in Dublin.
  • The Venezie Institute, the first Venetian think tank, based on the traditional Venetian principles of: free market, institutional integrity, limited government and individual liberty.
  • The Fabian Society, London-based, left of centre think tank, associated with the United Kingdom Labour Party
  • Institute for Collaborative Engagement, A US based think tank working on global issues
  • The Foreign Policy Centre, London-based think tank
  • USAK, Ankara-based Turkish think tank
  • Strategic Foresight Group, an India based think tank, working on global issues
  • Captus, Swedish free-market think-tank
  • Tennessee Center for Policy Research, one of over 40 state-based free market think tanks in the United States that has a conservative view point.
  • The Roosevelt Institution, a student think tank based in the USA
  • International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, a think tank based in India for Non-Aligned Movement
  • Knights of the North, a think tank of progressive Freemasons based in North America.
  • Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels-based market-oriented think tank
  • Demos is a UK based think tank focusing on public services; science and technology ; cities and public space; arts and culture; global security, and public communication.
  • - The Public Think Tank, A Web-based Public Think Tank Dedicated to the Interdisciplinary Dialogue on the State of Humanity.
  • Theos - The Public Theology Think Tank, Theos is a public theology think tank which exists to undertake research and provide commentary on social and political arrangements.
  • Tellus Institute A progressive think tank based in Boston, MA, that focuses on environmental sustainablity and social equity.
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