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Dieter Plehwe

Think-tanks have become prominent organizations in political processes at national and international levels. They are widely praised for their capacity to conduct policy-relevant research, for their ability to innovate, and to reach out to practicing politicians. Critiques have pointed out that many think-tanks do not contribute research in any real sense, and frequently serve elite, government or business interests instead. Although the two perspectives are clearly contradictory, a comprehensive treatment of the politics of policy think-tanks can reconcile different views by way of, firstly, recognizing different types of think-tanks, and their diverse roles in particular policy communities at various stages in policy processes. Secondly, beyond the analytic distinction of different types of think-tanks, the political dimension of the knowledge and expertise produced and processed by think-tanks needs to be recognized and analyzed. A historical and social network analytical approach to study individual policy think-tanks as well as policy think-tank networks can be employed to clarify resources relevant to think-tank knowledge production, inter alia specific academic, political, corporate or ideological backgrounds, in addition to qualities and contributions of the expertise disseminated by think-tanks. This is demonstrated by way of revisiting, firstly, the deregulation battles in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and secondly, some of the environmental policy battles of the recent past. In each case think-tanks were or are prominently involved in various constructive and destructive policy efforts, and can be observed playing powerful and sometimes critical roles not necessarily in conjunction with the academic quality of the knowledge they help to advance. A critical approach to think-tank politics and the recognition of the political character of knowledge in turn can improve policy deliberation and decision making because of the efforts involved to advance greater transparency and accountability of policy actors on the one hand and the critical understanding of knowledge resources on the other hand.