Definition

think tank

Contributor(s): Sarah Lewis

A think tank is an organization that gathers a group of interdisciplinary scholars to perform research around particular policies, issues or ideas. Topics addressed in think tanks can cover a wide range, including social policy, public policy, economic policy, political strategy, culture and technology. Think tanks can also be referred to as think factories or policy institutes.

The work of all think tanks includes conducting scholarly research, creating a space for debate, generating ideas, monitoring public policy and providing intellectual resources to the public.

Most think tanks are considered non-profit organizations (NPO) while others can be funded by the government, special interest groups or corporations. This helps determine the degree of academic freedom as well as objectives. For example, a government think tank may involve planning national defense strategies while commercial projects may include developing or testing new technologies.

Types of think tanks

Think tanks can be organized in a variety of ways, the most common being by function:

  1. Ideological tanks- These organizations work towards solving a problem based on an ideological philosophy. Also known as advocacy tanks, research is targeted towards convincing policymakers to adopt their solutions.
  2. Specialist tanks- These institutes have a specific thematic focus, such as foreign policy, poverty or the environment.
  3. Subnational tanks- These are government-related think tanks that work at smaller stages than the national level. For example, think tanks that focus on a specific state’s policies.
  4. Practical tanks- Referred to as “think and do” tanks, these institutes are similar to non-governmental organizations (NGO) and conduct more practical efforts, such as funding charity projects.

Other experts have described think tanks based on their organizational or geographic affiliation. This includes independent civil society, university, government, political party, corporate, global and regional sponsored think tanks.

Additionally, think tanks can be categorized based on size, level of specialization or focus, stage of development, funding source or strategy. Strategy relates to the business model employed by the think tank such as independent research, contract work, advocacy and consulting.

The role of think tanks

The objective of think tanks is to combine knowledge and policy-making to impact future policy processes. Most think tanks claim to work for the common good and the education of the public surrounding a certain concern. By collecting the expertise of professionals within related fields, think tanks can legitimize their findings and share them through means of publications, conferences and seminars.

Examples of think tanks

While the term of think tank can be loosely applied to organizations that are formed to solve a problem or study a topic, it was first used to describe the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation. Project RAND aimed at encouraging engineers and scientists to come up with creative military advancements or strategies. In the information security realm, a tiger team could be considered a think tank as security expert research is done to expose faults in a software or computer system.

Other well-known examples of think tanks include:

  • The Heritage Foundation.
  • The Center for American Progress.
  • The Tellus Institute.
  • The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • The Brookings Institution.
  • Skunk Works.
This was last updated in April 2019

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