Think Tanks

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THINK TANKS are policy-oriented research organizations that provide expertise to government. By the year 2000 there were an estimated 1,200 nongovernment think tanks of various descriptions, various focuses on social and economic issues, and various sources of funding at work in the United States. Of the major think tanks, only the Brookings Institution (1916) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1910) were founded before World War II. The American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943.

Although think tanks are ostensibly nonpartisan, in many instances they function as extensions of state power, gaining and losing influence with changes in governments and shifts in the ideological climate of the country. In other cases, think tanks function more independently, questioning and monitoring state strategies and structures. (For example, the Rand Corporation, founded in the aftermath of World War II, was created to monitor and evaluate Air Force programs, before it became an independent research organization in the 1950s.)

The course of the Brookings Institution reflects the kinds of changes that can occur in shifting ideological currents. Founded as the Institute for Government Research in 1916 and reorganized in 1927 by the St. Louis philanthropist Robert Brookings, the Brookings Institution sought to bring nonpartisan expertise to policy questions of the day. During the 1930s, however, the institution, under its first president, Harold Moulton, became a major critic of many New Deal programs, including the National Recovery Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, securities regulation, and Keynesian economic policy. Following World War II, Moulton warned repeatedly that the government had drifted into "uncharted seas, if not state socialism," and called for an end to "regimentation."

In response to the new postwar environment and the reluctance of foundations to fund an institution they perceived as ineffective and out of touch, Robert Calkins, former head of the General Education Fund at the Rockefeller Foundation, agreed to become president of Brookings. Calkins reorganized the institution and recruited social scientists with liberal credentials and government experience. This new group had close ties with government and, unlike the devotees of the earlier nonpartisan ideal, aligned themselves closely with presidential administrations. In 1965, when Calkins retired, the Brookings Institution was representative of mainstream Keynesian economic thinking, and its growing influence was reflected in renewed foundation support, especially from the Ford Foundation. Under Calkins's successor, Kermit Gordon, Brookings's reputation as a liberal Democratic think tank was well entrenched. Under Gordon, the Brookings Institution became a major center for policy innovation in welfare, health care, education, housing, and taxation policy.

In 1976, the board of trustees appointed Bruce MacLaury to head the institution. A former regional Federal Reserve banker and Treasury official, MacLaury successfully courted business support, increased corporate representation on the board of trustees, and moved the institution toward a more moderate ideological stance.

By the 1970s, the Brookings Institution confronted competition from other major policy research institutions, especially the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both viewed as conservative re search institutions close to the Republican party.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), founded in 1943 as the American Enterprise Association (AEA), illustrates the experience of a conservatively oriented research institution that expressed deep ambivalence about the post–World War II policy consensus. The key figure behind the establishment of the AEA was Lewis Brown, chairman of Johns-Manville Corporation. From the start, the AEA reflected a conservative bias.

In 1954, A. D. Marshall, head of General Electric, assumed the institution's presidency and immediately hired William Baroody and W. Glenn Campbell, both staff economists at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to head the research program. Under their guidance, AEA was gradually built into a modern research institute under its new name, the American Enterprise Institute. Principle support came from the Lilly Endowment, the Scaife Fund, and the Earhart and Kresge Foundations, as well as major corporate sponsors. The institution's reputation was enhanced when the Nixon administration called a number of AEI associates to government positions. The AEI also emerged as a successful proponent of economic deregulation.

In 1977, William Baroody retired and his son, William Baroody Jr., took over the presidency of the institution. To improve its standing in the academic community, the AEI assembled an impressive staff including Melvin Laird, William Simon, Robert Bork, Michael Novak, and Herbert Stein. The tenure of William Baroody Jr., however, ended abruptly in the summer of 1987, when an increasingly restive board of trustees forced his resignation because of cost overruns and declining revenues. Baroody's successor, Christopher DeMuth, bolstered the conservative orientation of the institute by bringing on board several former Reagan administration officials with strong rightist reputations.

The founding of the Heritage Foundation in 1973 revealed a new ideological climate in the analysis of public knowledge. Founded by Edwin Feulner and Paul Weyrich to provide rapid and succinct legislative analysis on issues pending before Congress, the Heritage Foundation sought to promote conservative values and demonstrate the need for a free market and a strong defense. The Heritage Foundation's articulation of conservative values in social policy, education, and government activities placed it at the forefront of New Right activity. The Heritage Foundation remained relatively small in its early years, but the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 enhanced the institution's prestige. By the mid-1980s the Heritage Foundation had established a solid place in the Washington world of think tanks as a well-organized, efficient, and well-financed research organization that called for the turning over of many government tasks to private enterprise, a strong defense, and a cautious approach to Russia and China.

During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, a myriad of other think tanks emerged in Washington representing a range of ideological positions and specialized policy interests, including the left-oriented Institute for Policy Studies (1963) and the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute (1977). Think tanks concerned with national security included the Center for Strategic and International Studies (1962) and the Center for National Security Studies (1962) affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union. The Urban Institute (1968) focused on domestic social, welfare, and family policy, while the National Women's Law Center (1972) worked on policies that affect women, especially reproductive rights, employment, and education. The Institute for International Economics (1981) became a major center for international economic and monetary policies, especially from a free-trade perspective. The traditionalist-oriented Ethics and Public Policy Center (1976) provided analysis of public policies related to religious issues.


Critchlow, Donald T. The Brookings Institution, 1916–1952. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Dixon, Paul. Think Tanks. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Edwards, Lee. The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at Twenty-Five Years. Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 1997.

Friedman, John S., ed. The First Harvest: An Institute for Policy Studies Reader, 1963–1983. Washington, D.C.: Grove, 1983.

Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy. Middle-town, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

Ricci, David. The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Smith, James Allen. The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the New Policy Elite. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Donald T.Critchlow