What are think tanks for?

What are think tanks for? Policy research in the age of anti-expertise

What role can and should think tanks play in a 'post-truth' world?

Rosa Balfour


Rosa Balfour

German Marshall Fund of the United States

In this Strategic Update, Rosa Balfour argues that to meet complex policy challenges think tanks need to improve their diversity, innovate, and re-focus on their core mission.

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What are think tanks for?

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What are think tanks for?

About the Author 

Dr Rosa Balfour is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a member of the Steering Committee of WIIS-Brussels (Women In International Security). Prior to joining GMF, Rosa was a Director at the European Policy Centre (EPC), an independent think tank based in Brussels, where she headed the Europe in the World programme.

Image credit: Andrew Home  

References & Footnotes

The author would like to thank Joseph Barnsley, Michael Cox, Laura Groenendaal, Corinna Horst, Daniel Keohane, Lorenzo Robustelli and Antonella Santilli for their comments and feedback on this essay and for the many conversations had before putting ideas into words. Needless to say, responsibility lies entirely with the author.

(1) The interview can be watched here. 

(2) Chris Hill (2013), The National Interest in Question. Foreign Policy in Multicultural Societies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 94.

(3) Tony Blair (2007), ‘What I’ve learned’, The Economist, 31 May.

(4) Mallaby (2016). Mallaby’s focus is on the powers of central banks and the technocrats leading them.

(5) Sunder Katwala, Steve Ballinger and Matthew Rhodes (2014), How to talk about Immigration, London: British Future and Sunder Katwala and Steve Bollinger (2016), How (not) to talk about Europe, London: British Future

(6) James G. McGann (2017), ‘2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report’, TTCSP Global Go To Think Tank Index Reports. 12. 

(7) McGann (2017).

(8) Daniel W. Drezner (2017), ‘The traditional think tank is withering. In its place? Bankers and consultants’, The Washington Post: 6 April.

(9) James Hohmann, Tom Hamburger and Elise ViebeckThe Daily 202: Elizabeth Warren challenges Brookings over research backed by industry’, Washington Post, September 29, 2015

(10) Thomas de Waal (2016), ‘Eastern Europe’s Superflous Men’, captures the fall of those Western- and liberal- educated men leading the transition in post-Soviet Europe (Ukraine and Georgia). For the mixed picture in Central and Eastern Europe see Peter Vandor, Nicole Traxler, Reinhard Millner, and Michael Meyer (eds.) (2017), Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe: Challenges and Opportunities, Vienna: Erste Stiftung

(11) Pautz, H. (2011). Revisiting the think-tank phenomenon. Public Policy and Administration, Vol. 26, №4, 419–435.

(12) Edward Said (1994) , p. 101.

(13) Jeremy Shapiro (2014), Who influences whom? Reflections on U.S. Government outreach to think tanks, Brookings, 4 June, last accessed on 25 August 2017.

(14) Oliver Burkeman (2017), ‘Is the world really better than ever?’ The Guardian Long Reads, 28 July, quotes Steve Pool (2015), ‘A take on hot takes’, The Guardian, 18 September. 

(15) The choice of words comes from Edward H. Said (1993), p. 82.

(16) Edward Said (1994), p. 102.

(17) Ben Scott (2016), Collaborative Policy Development. From Think Tank to Civic Enterprise, New America and Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, last accessed on 29 August 2017.