New study reveals rampant conflicts of interest at think tanks
“Scholars, media organizations, and members of the public should be sensitized to the conflicts of interest shaping foreign policy analysis generally and nuclear policy analysis specifically,” is the conclusion of new academic research that documents how think tank funders are shaping the foreign policy debate.
The study, “No such thing as a free donation: research funding and conflicts of interest in nuclear weapons policy analysis,” authored by Kjølv Egeland and Benoît Pelopidas of the Center for International Studies in Paris, was released in late December by Sage. After an exhaustive review of the world’s top foreign policy think tanks — including the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and many more — the authors found that they all receive “donations from actors with interests in the perpetuation of the extant nuclear order.” The study then answers the question posed in its title — “No such thing as a free donation?” — by showing exactly how these donations provide funders with considerable influence over these institutions’ work and the marketplace of ideas.
Through interviews with grant managers and former and current employees at these think tanks, the authors identified numerous instances where funding biased these organizations’ work through outright censorship, self-censorship, and perspective filtering.
The authors found that outright censorship was rare, but could have dramatic effects on these organizations’ products. One former think tank employee explained that a research project had been canceled at the request of a major funder. Another recounted how an entire think tank they were working at had been bankrupted when a nuclear umbrella state abruptly canceled its funding. By his account, this was “unquestionably done for political reasons,” as the institution “had been doing a lot of critical work on nuclear deterrence and security, questioning orthodox thinking.”
An analyst at yet another think tank recounted how funder pressure led to direct censoring of its report “away from controversial or critical analysis,” with analysts there being told, “Don’t talk about government militarism…talk about what the terrorists are doing instead.”
Self-censorship, on the other hand, is much more commonplace, according to the study. In fact, nearly all of the analysts interviewed said they engaged in it, as did their colleagues.
“Self-censorship is the greatest threat to our democracies in the West. A lot of think tank experts posture as experts with complete academic freedom — this is absolutely not the case,” one analyst explained to the study authors. Other think tank analysts never write or publicly comment in ways that may be construed as antithetical to funder interests.
A grant manager who provides funding to these institutions explained the Darwinian nature of this environment wherein, “The recipient knows they might not be funded next time around if they’re very disloyal.”
Given this filtering of research topics and self-censorship of the work itself, one former think tank analyst explained that, “what we were producing was not research, it was a kind of propaganda.”
In addition to these direct infringements on intellectual freedom, funders also use think tanks to launder their reputations. “Think tanks are not just selling expertise, but also their own brand,” as one interviewee explained to the authors of the study, “That means that they can help actors that are involved in morally questionable practices such as arms manufacturing, possessing nuclear weapons, fracking, etc. look better.”
While these forms of influence and donor motives are not uncommon, the authors argue that donors’ greatest influence was not generally exercised with respect to specific products or analysts, but rather by “affecting which questions are asked” in the marketplace of ideas and getting “to determine who gets funded to write or say something in the first place.”
Funders are simply unlikely to provide initial or continued support to organizations or analysts whose views are antithetical to their own. In this survival of the funded ecosystem — where friendly voices are given large megaphones and foes are marginalized — the policy debate is systematically biased towards the most generous donors. In the specific space covered by the study, this means a systematic bias towards proponents of militarization and nuclear weapons.
“Censorship becomes largely unnecessary when you only hire people who agree with the views of the censor,” explained Brett Heinz, co-author of a report on the Center for a New American Security’s ties to the military industrial complex, in an email to Responsible Statecraft. “This helps to produce an artificial consensus: experts all seem to agree with one another only because most dissenting experts are excluded from the conversation.”
Beyond these negative impacts on public discourse, there may also be a legal risk for institutions engaged in funder-driven work. Specifically, think tanks in the United States that are doing the bidding of foreign governments could run afoul of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires organizations performing lobbying, public relations, and other work on behalf of foreign powers to register with the Department of Justice.
As Eli Clifton and I wrote in the Quincy Institute brief, “Restoring Trust in the Think Tank Sector,” think tanks that accept funding from foreign governments — and most think tanks do — at times appear to be doing work that should, at the very least, raise questions about whether they should be registered under FARA.
In 2022, the FARA unit appeared to begin asking those questions in earnest. Early in the year, it released “Advisory Opinions” putting think tanks and other non-profits on notice that they were not exempt from the law. And, just last month, the head of the FARA unit publicly explained that, “Think tanks could draw scrutiny if they are advocating policy positions in line with foreign governments or principals and there is an agency relationship — monetary or otherwise — between the parties.”
Regardless of the FARA implications of think tank funding or whether commendable congressional efforts to increase the transparency of think tank funding are successful, the new study’s authors offer a practical takeaway based on their research: “Responsible scholars, journalists, and other members of the public should stop treating think tanks and university programmes that accept large donations from vested interests as research entities and instead think of them as communications or public relations operations.”