The Death of the Think Tank, R.I.P.

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The recent firing of Russ Whitehurst as head of the education unit at Brookings marks the demise of the think tank.  Russ is an experimental psychologist who became the founding director of the Institute for Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.  In that role he championed the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to study the effectiveness of educational policies and interventions, which was a huge improvement in rigor for US ED-funded projects.  He then took that rigor to Brookings, where he and his colleagues conducted policy-relevant and rapid research that met high standards of social science.

But Brookings and most other think tanks have lost interest in rigorous social science.  There is relatively little thinking at think tanks these days.  Instead, they have chosen to focus almost exclusively on advocacy efforts, not realizing that effective advocacy requires generating new, high-quality information.  Without rigorous research, think tanks just repeat talking points, trying to be more clever in their phrasing and more persistent in their communication so they can be heard above the din of everyone else doing the same.

It’s a losing strategy, at least for education reformers.  The unions and their allies also know how to  repeat talking points endlessly.  And they have the resources and the numbers to drown out reformers.  Reformers have delusions of influence because of the thousands of followers they have on Twitter and the number of hits to their web sites, failing to realize how much bigger the likes of Diane Ravitch and her Army of Angry Teachers are in social media.  In their insular little world, think tank based education reformers are Kings of the Lilliputians.

The only way to beat the larger and better-resourced education establishment is with superior information.  Reasonable but uncommitted policymakers and influential elites have their doubts about the education status quo, but they are unsure about what the nature of the problems are or how to fix them.  The unions and their allies have explanations.  Schools are plagued by insufficient resources and the social problems of poverty, they say.  The solutions they offer are increased spending and broader, bolder social services in schools as the best way to improve education.  If reformers have different descriptions of the problems and want to offer alternative solutions, they need quality evidence to persuade reasonable but undecided policy elites.  Reformers can’t out-talk or out-spin the ed establishment.  They have to out-think them and that requires rigorous research.

Unfortunately, foundations and other donors are driving the shift in think tanks away from research.  In a recent analysis I did for a forthcoming book on education and philanthropy, I found that the largest 15 education foundations devote only 5.9% of their giving to support research, some of which is actually advocacy disguised as phony research.  These foundations spend nearly 5 times as much on activities that are undisguised advocacy efforts.  And most of this small amount for research funding is going to universities, so the ratio of support for research relative to advocacy at think tanks is completely out of whack.

I understand the need for people who are effective communicators to translate and summarize research for a policy audience.  But when funding for advocacy exceeds rigorous research by more than 5 to 1, there won’t be enough research for all of those communicators to translate and summarize.  They’ll just endlessly spout unsupported blather, which is what many of them are now doing.  And they are doing this because that’s what the donors and foundations have chosen to fund.

Foundations need to restore a balance between supporting quality research and advocacy if they wish to succeed in improving the education system.  They can do this by increasing support for research done at universities.  Many of the factors that drove foundations to support research at think tanks instead of universities have disappeared.  Academics were once too slow in producing work and tended to shun policy relevant topics.  No more.  It is now common and rewarded practice for professors to address current issues and release working papers with results quickly.   And the ideological stranglehold that hindered honest examination of reform efforts has also loosened significantly.  If think tanks are really dead, then long live research at universities… but only if the foundations devote more funding to it.

Perhaps think tanks are only mostly dead.  There are pockets of individuals in think tanks who still do quality empirical work.  If foundations decide to support more of their work and push think tanks to hire more of them (and not fire quality researchers like Russ Whitehurst), perhaps the currently brain-dead think tank can be brought back to life.

The future of quality education research rests in the hands of program officers and trustees at the leading foundations.  Government funding for research is shrinking and is increasingly politicized.  If we want to see more rigorous research and less Twitter drivel, foundations will need to change their funding priorities.

19 Responses to The Death of the Think Tank, R.I.P.

  1. Mark Dynarski says:

    A university hosts the ‘National Education Policy Center.’ Enough said that universities are better positioned than think tanks to conduct rigorous research and advance the discussion. I am not saying think tanks are better positioned than universities to do rigorous research, either, but it’s strikes me as a quaint idea that university researchers are more objective than think-tank researchers. University researchers need funding too, and the force of incentives will move them in directions implied by the promise of funding. Signs that university researchers have moved closer to policy are scant, as the program of any recent AERA conference will confirm.

    Philanthropies could fund research that yields superior information. Spencer and Smith Richardson come to mind. Maybe your forthcoming book looks at the forces at work that appear to be creating headwinds for these kinds of efforts. More’s the pity.

    • Ze'ev Wurman says:


    • Greg Forster says:

      I don’t think Jay said that “university researchers are more objective than think-tank researchers.”

    • Hi Mark and Ze’ev,

      I didn’t mean to suggest that university research is more objective. I was just describing that at least some people at universities are doing rigorous research on policy relevant topics and producing accessible results quickly. You can find that kind of research at AEFP, not AERA.

      So if Foundations are going to follow my advice and create a better balance between funding research and advocacy, some people at universities would be an option for them if think tanks lack the capacity or organizational culture to revive their research function.

      • Ze'ev Wurman says:

        Jay, I agree, but I don’t believe Mark was saying that universities are more objective. He brought the NEPC as an example why this can’t be true. Please reread his post.

      • I’m not saying foundations should fund all universities or NEPC. Im just saying they now have options at universities if think tanks can’t do the job.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I take your overall point, Jay, but two caveats:

    1) This analysis applies to education rather than to all subjects. You might say ” education think tankery” is dead.

    2) Donors who want to restore more real research might be better advised to fund it in think tanks rather than universities. Most universities demand a much larger financial tribute for bogus “overhead” than think tanks do, and have a much worse record when it comes to respecting donor intent.

  3. Mark Dynarski says:

    My thanks to Jay for a stimulating post and to commenters for this discussion. I agree completely with Jay (and should have said so initially) that think tanks never will win the advocacy war. Too much money and media experience on the one side. As advocates, think tanks are bringing knives to gun fights.

    To be clear, I think universities are not inherently more objective just because they are universities (that was the NEPC example). The public might imagine that university-based researchers are in an ivory tower and above the fray. They aren’t. They like funding too.

    However, it’s hard for researchers to be advocates if they are doing rigorous statistical analysis and experimental designs. The methods forces openness and the logical development of findings from evidence rather than ideology. (Surely I am not the only researcher who started a study thinking I knew where it would come out and ended it thinking, well, I had that one wrong.) And a cohort of researchers has developed that brings impressive analytic skills to policy issues. I am thinking for example, of Raj Chetty and his colleagues studying the long term gains from value added, and Tom Dee and Jim Wyckoff studying the effects of the teacher evaluation system in DC. And Jay’s experiment on the effects of exposure to the arts. Here is research that moves the ball.

    Philanthropies may think rigorous methods and experiments are not sexy, and want their funding to result in media-friendly outputs. But media mentions come and go. Sound research influences thinking for years. Recently I was reading a working paper that was developing ideas from RA Fisher published in the twenties! The paper did not feel at all dated; these ideas are still in play. RA Fisher never tweeted, yet his research lives on.

    I hope voices like Jay’s can urge philanthropies to play the research long game. Sexy, no, but valuable, yes.

    • I completely agree. Thanks, Mark!

    • Greg Forster says:

      During the six years I was employed full time at education think tanks, I didn’t find it at all difficult to be an advocate while doing rigorous work. Of course it helps if what you’re interested in advocating is the truth, so you’re willing to follow your results.

  4. Jeff Doyler says:

    Incredibly cheap shot at Diane Ravitch, whose work and blog is chock full of rigorous research. Re coin-operated funding, social science needs to look at the beam in its own eye, such as endowing faculty positions to provide ideological cover for the hedge fund kings who want to privatize education.

  5. bkisida says:

    I would wait until they find a replacement for Russ before concluding that Brookings has lost interest in rigorous social science. It may be the case, but it seems premature to pass judgment at this point. Beer bet?

  6. ltr says:

    Reformers have delusions of influence because of the thousands of followers they have on Twitter and the number of hits to their web sites, failing to realize how much bigger the likes of Diane Ravitch and her Army of Angry Teachers are in social media….

    [ Wildly insulting, when there is no reason to be insulting. ]

  7. Gary Orfield says:

    Well, I disagree with you, Jay, about a lot of public policy issues and, as an old Brookings staff member, I don’t think that one person at Brookings determines the fate of scientific research in think tanks. But I do agree that there has been far too little attention to serious research by foundations and that some of the biggest foundations and think tanks largely support work to move their predetermined agendas. The country deserves a much more sophisticated debate, especially in Washington.

    • Thanks for the comment, Gary. I’m glad that this is one issue on which we can find some agreement and I appreciate the open exchange of ideas.

      I agree with you that one person at Brookings does not determine the fate of think tanks, but Russ was one of the last serious scholars and Brookigns was one of the last serious think tank doing education research. There are a handful of people still doing rigorous work in think tanks, but Russ’ firing marks the end of an era.

      Funders could decide to promote greater balance between advocacy and research. And think tanks could decide not to let funders dictate their agenda. Let’s hope.

  8. Interesting, thank you. For more info about how funding shifts affect think tanks’ research, please visit

  9. ltr says:

    Reformers have delusions of influence because of the thousands of followers they have on Twitter and the number of hits to their web sites, failing to realize how much bigger the likes of Diane Ravitch and her Army of Angry Teachers are in social media….

    [ Decency would have called for an apology, but I realize there will be no apology. I know now though whose voice to turn away from. ].

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