A think tank is a group of individuals dedicated to high-level synergistic research on a variety of subjects, frequently in military laboratories, corporations, universities, or other institutions. Usually this term refers specifically to organizations which support theorists and intellectuals who endeavor to produce analysis or policy recommendations, but it can also apply to organizations devoted to exploring the possibilities of technology.
Think tanks in the United States play often have a highly inffluential 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 result of these debates will influence government policy makers. Think tanks in the United States generally receive funding from private donors, and members of private organization think tanks may feel more free to propose and debate controversial ideas than people within government.
Some think tanks are clearly aligned with conservative Laissez-Faire approaches to the economy, while others, especially those with an emphasis on social welfare, social equity or environmental outcomes, are viewed as more liberal or left-of-center.
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.
Events which resulted from think tanks include:
- The atomic bomb
- Dolphin-human communication
- The Internet and the World Wide Web
- Some early United States space programs
- Remote viewing
- Global climatology
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq
- The graphical user interface
- One Laptop Per Child
Critics such as Ralph Nader have suggested that the private nature of the funding of many think tanks may bias their resulting findings. 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.
Some critics go further to assert that many think tanks are little more than propaganda tools for promoting the ideological arguments of whatever group established them. They charge that most think tanks, especially those 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.
Critics charge as another example that over the past three years Microsoft has funded about a dozen think tanks that have released papers attacking open-source software in hopes of slowing its success. They point to an incident in June 2004 during the dispute between Microsoft and SCO regarding Linux, in which the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, claimed that Linus Torvalds could never have written Linux and concluded: "Since Linux is tainted, potential users may one day find themselves in court..."
Not all organizations calling themselves think tanks conform to the strict definition in the first paragraph above. Marketing or public relations organizations, especially of an international character, sometimes refer to themselves as think tanks, simultaneously broadening the definition of the term and, as a promotional strategy, calling upon its traditional prestige associations (See Medinge Group).
Mapping the US think tank network
Since think tanks generally prefer secrecy for their internal organizational methods, it may be difficult to map their network of connections and interests. One method of documenting the think tank network uses books published by members of the think tanks and/or journalists who write about them, noting whose names occur together on any single page of these books. While crude, this method is currently used by the organization NameBase and the results are publicly available.
Liberal/Progressive Think Tanks
Neutral Think Tanks
Conservative Think Tanks
- Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
- American Civil Rights Institute of anti-Affirmative Action activist Ward Connerly
- American Enterprise Institute, Laissez-Faire
- Cato Institute, Libertarian
- Center for Immigration Studies
- Center for Security Policy
- Claremont Institute
- FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), anti-immigration group, listed as hate group by SPLC
- Foreign Policy Research Institute
- Heritage Foundation
- Hoover Institution at Stanford University
- Hudson Institute
- Institute on Religion and Democracy, Bill Kristol and PNAC
- Manhattan Institute
- Middle East Forum
- National Center for Policy Analysis
- The Nixon Center
- Project for the New American Century, Officially disbanded, but members remain active