5 Think Tanks That Have Successfully Impacted Public Policy

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There has been much debate in recent years about how effective or relevant think tanks are in today’s world. In fact, it is difficult to give the term think tank a definition — as it now includes university research groups, public policy groups, NGOs, advocacy organizations, foundations, and more. Think tanks that are engaging more with practice are being referred to as “think and do” or “do” tanks, whereas those like the Pew Research Center that focus on information, are calling themselves “fact” tanks. While it can all get a bit confusing, the common goal of all these organizations is clear: to conduct in-depth research that can impact public policy and lead to positive reform.

Think tanks carry out research in diverse areas, from healthcare to economics. The typical task of a think tank is to conduct in-depth research on a specific topic or towards a specific cause, publish findings and insights, and provide data-driven recommendations that will shape policy and legislation.

Over the years, think tanks have made positive contributions to decision-making, research and policy in countries across the world. Here are 5 think tanks who’ve successfully brought about change and are continuing to work towards reforming policy:

1. Brookings Institution

One of the oldest and most reputed think tanks, Brookings Institution has been instrumental in shaping policy on a variety of issues in the US. Considered to be America’s most prestigious think tank, the institution has advised Presidents on how to run their administrations smoothly, has published studies that have shaped federal budget and has “produced influential proposals for homeland security and intelligence operations” post the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In the early 2000s, Brookings proposed a child tax credit system in the USA which became part of a major legislation, and helped families reduce their federal tax bill.

The institution is currently strongly advocating for a change in federal legislation around medical marijuana. While medical cannabis is already legal in many states in the US, it is still a Schedule 1 drug under the federal law. In a documentary made in May 2018, the institution moved away from its traditional format of books and reports to a new medium. The documentary showcase the life of a teenager struggling with epilepsy who had to move from her home in Virginia (where cannabis oil could not be legally prescribed for her condition) to Colorado to access medical marijuana. She and her mom however became activists and supported the fight for legalization — and in 2018, Virginia approved the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes. Brookings aims to showcase the human side of a volatile debate, and hopes to move the public and influence the government to make what they believe is a necessary change in its cannabis laws.

2. RAND Corporation

RAND Corporation was formed in 1948 just after WWII, with the aim of providing research support to the US Armed Forces. It adopted its name from the term “research and development”. Over the years, RAND has played a huge role in addressing some of society’s biggest challenges and has helped advance scientific research and technology. Their research areas include not just science and technology but also education and literacy, environmental issues, international affairs, climate change, and more. Some of RAND’s achievements in the public policy space include “improving the US healthcare system and providing affordable housing to low-income families”.

One of their current focus areas is on the safety of delivery drones, and how policy can be shaped to ensure that the risks of using these aerial vehicles is minimized.  In 2017, a panel of experts helped the National Institute of Justice identify and analyze how social media and social network analysis can help law enforcement.

3. Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

IPPR is one of the leading think tanks in the UK with major programmes focusing on economic policy, workforce challenges and a plan for a progressive Brexit. Their work receives considerable media attention, and has had a big impact in the past: a report published by them led directly to the development of child tax credits, and their work around the Spring Budget 2017 in the UK sparked national debate.

The IPPR’s recent work includes a report showcasing public attitudes to a post-Brexit UK and whether the country should continue to align with the EU’s rules around consumer, financial, employment and environmental standards, or whether it should move away from these laws to make its own. The institution also published facts and figures of the changing economy and demographics in its “Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s” report, which not only received nation-wide visibility but also saw engagement from policymakers, politicians and the government.

4. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES)

C2ES, or the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (success of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change) is a US-based think tank working to find practical solutions to climate change. The institution works with businesses to strengthen their resilience to climate change, with policymakers and other stakeholders to develop policies that ensure climate progress, and with mayors to strengthen public-private partnerships.

One of C2ES’ major achievements is bringing together officials from more than 20 countries to for a dialogue on climate change that paved the way for the 2015 Paris agreement. Along with the Great Plains Institute, C2ES convenes the Carbon Capture Coalition, that aims to capture carbon emissions for commercial use. In May 2018, the organization published a report that outlined how US policymakers could make sure that their current nuclear capacity was being maintained, while promoting renewables alongside.

5. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF)

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization that focuses on healthcare issues in the US and provides information on health policy, health reform, global health, etc. They regularly publish in-depth reports on health costs, insurance, Medicaid, women’s health, etc., with the aim of informing policymakers, the media, healthcare organizations and practitioners, and the general public.  They also conduct polls and surveys independently and in association with The Washington Post and NPR to identify gaps in the system and analyze how they can be filled. Their “Public Opinion and Survey Research” program conducts research on Americans’ experiences with the healthcare system and provides a platform for under-represented groups to voice their issues in national debates.

A study carried out by KFF in August 2018 finds that there is limited evidence that suggests that employment improves health. It discusses the considerations to be taken into account in the Medicaid work requirements, and highlights the health issues that can arise if you lose health coverage due to work requirements. The study was based on a literature review of research from more than 50 sources.

Recent reports that suggest that think tanks are becoming politicized to the point of becoming lobbyists, and that their research is frequently being passed off as ‘academic literature’. Transparify is an initiative that provides a global rating of the financial transparency of think tanks, allowing us to decide which ones are legitimate and credible.

Think tanks continue to play a significant role in bridging the gap between policymakers, researchers and the general public. Close to 7,000 organizations around the world work under this umbrella term, conducting and publishing research that will lead to a better-informed public and government.

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Ramya Sriram manages digital content and communications at Kolabtree. She's had about 8 years of experience in publishing, advertising, and digital content creation. She loves all things science and tech, and moonlights as a cartoonist and travel writer.

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