Public Policy Centers

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Policy centers or think tanks (as they are often called) are an influential, diverse part of the U.S. not-for-profit sector. Those that contribute to discussions of science, technology, and ethics include organizations such as the liberal progressive Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and the culturally conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. (Bioethics centers, which also contribute to these discussions, constitute a special category of policy centers and are considered in a separate article.)

Historical Background

Policy centers have grown in number and significance since the foundation of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910 and the Institute for Government Research (IGR) in 1916, the first private organizations dedicated to analyzing public policy issues at the international and national levels, respectively. Subsequently IGR founder Robert Somers Brookings (1850–1932) established two supporting organizations: the Institute of Economics and a graduate school bearing his name. The Brookings Institution was formed when these three groups merged in 1927.

Both the Carnegie Endowment (with a staff of 100 and operating expenses of more than $19 million) and the Brookings Institution (with a staff of 275 and expenses of about $40 million) are still going strong, and have been joined by roughly 100 active think tanks in the Washington, DC, area. These include a number of additional policy centers that have expanded since their rather humble beginnings—among them, the Heritage Foundation (with more than 200 staff and more than $34 million in revenue); American Enterprise Institute (with 60 resident scholars, more than 100 adjunct scholars, and more than $18 million in revenues); the Urban Institute (including ten major policy centers with large staffs and operating expenses of more than $77 million); the Cato Institute (with 90 full-time staff, 60 adjunct scholars, 16 fellows, and revenues of roughly $13 million); and the Institute for Policy Studies (with a staff of 30 and expenses of roughly $1.5 million). (Staff and budgetary information is available from the Internet site of each organization, except Cato, obtained from an annual report.)

The expansion in both the numbers and influence of these organizations provides testament to the increasing complexity in government policy making and the growing demand for specialized knowledge and advice. Politicians and bureaucrats who make and implement policy often rely on outside experts to translate academic research and dialogue into predigested, understandable information and recommendations.

The term think tank originated in the United States during World War II to describe the secure environment where military and civilian experts developed military strategy. Subsequently the term was applied to contractors (such as the Rand Corporation) that worked closely with the military on both long-term strategy and short-term consulting. During the 1960s and 1970s, the use of the term was further expanded—first to include organizations focusing on international affairs, and then more broadly to cover organizations working on domestic political, economic, or social issues (McGann 2002).

The Role of Policy Centers in the United States

Think tanks inhabit the world of nongovernmental organizations—the third sector—and their success is primarily evaluated in terms of influence on the political process and the media. Think tanks operating in Washington, DC, at the beginning of the twenty-first century represent divergent points of view (for example, liberal, conservative, or libertarian) and cover a wide range of subject matter (from international relations to the environment, bioethics to economics) (Ricci 1994). Some specialize in one issue or field—for instance, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the Ethics and Public Policy Center. They are also diverse in their activities, roles, and sources of funding. As a result, neatly defining and categorizing think tanks is not an easy task. Nonetheless think tanks generally conduct policy research and analysis, and provide advice. In the United States, think tanks do any or all of the following:

  • Serve as incubators for ideas that may later inform policy making;
  • Provide a public forum for the exchange of ideas and debate;
  • Provide advice to policymakers and offer expertise to the media;
  • Advocate for particular positions—often crossing the line from think tanks to do tanks. (McGann 2002)

The influence of think tanks in Washington is considerable. While modern-day politicians often publicly eschew the policy elite, the variety and complexity of issues public officials confront often results in their reliance on such experts—if not directly, then indirectly (Smith 1991). Policymakers' staffs and outside stakeholders to whom they turn for advice routinely rely on publications and briefings by policy center staffs. Recent offerings by well-established think tanks such as Brookings and AEI include seminars on topics as diverse as ocean policy, Chinese labor issues, post-election Iraq, global warming, and the science of happiness.

In addition to being ubiquitous as pundits on television news programs and roundtables, think tank fellows and researchers often rank high in surveys and journal articles as individuals with the greatest influence on Washington, DC, policymakers (Ricci 1994). Over the years, think tanks have provided an important forum for independent research and strategic thinking that has informed important public policy debates.

Policy Centers with a Purpose

Ethical issues flow from the influence of policy centers on the process of governing. While campaign finance receives a great deal of public scrutiny, the influence of special interests on policy centers, which in turn influence elected officials, is often ignored. In addition to think tanks that may have a certain thrust (some would say bias) in approaching a wide sweep of policy issues, or that develop deep expertise in a specific subject area, a number of think tanks have been established to promote or attack certain policy proposals. Corporate interests financially support some of these and a central mission of such policy centers is to promote their sponsors' agenda. While financial support is sometimes acknowledged, such information is often not provided on the web sites of these centers, in their meeting materials, or in their publications. However most think tanks are established as not-for-profits. In order to maintain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, lobbying must represent only a fraction of total expenditures for the organization and financial records must be disclosed (although not necessarily in a widely accessible manner).

The creation of for-profit ventures that merge lobbying, think tank, and journalism functions has further complicated the scene. Staff in some Washington, DC, area think tanks are as likely to come from Capitol Hill offices or the field of journalism as they are from the halls of academia. They use their skills and contacts to actively lobby for policy positions espoused by their clients. Such journo-lobbying has been called "an attempt to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which officials make policy decisions ... funding everything from think tanks to issue ads to phony grassroots pressure groups" (Confessore 2003, from Internet site). Blurring the spectrum of journalism and think tanks and lobbying raises obvious concerns about real or apparent conflicts of interests.

Analytical work published by various policy centers can range from rigorously researched, documented, and peer-reviewed books that serve an important role in elevating the policy debate to brief issue papers or even just press releases or short articles with little or no supporting analysis. With the advent of the Internet and email, centers can develop and widely disseminate fact sheets in minutes. Questions regarding the expertise of researchers, rigor and review of work product, and independence of analysis cast doubt upon the intellectual integrity of some think tanks. Because early twenty-first century think tanks weigh in on so many issues of scientific, social, and economic significance, the danger of an independent-sounding think tank fronting for specific private-sector interests under the guise of objective research and analysis provides reason to be concerned. Some articles in the popular press have revealed strategies to do just that (Confessore 2003, Cushman 1998).

Benefits of Policy Centers

In spite of concerns about think tanks with a specific corporate agenda, many play a valuable role where they conduct genuinely objective research and provide analyses critical to informing government policy making. Their publications and workshops often provide a rich resource for those wanting to understand complex technical, economic, and scientific issues and how they relate to questions of policy. Whether affiliated with universities (for example, the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland) or independent, they provide a rich research environment for scholars. They allow research staffs the luxury of delving deeply into important topics regardless of the current political climate or government sponsorship, thus providing important and stable intellectual capital.


SEE ALSO Bioethics Centers; Science Policy.


Cushman, John H., Jr. (1998). "Industrial Group Plans to Battle Climate Treaty." New York Times April 26, sec. 1,
p. 1.

McGann, James G., and R. Kent Weaver, eds. (2002). Think Tanks and Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Ricci, David M. (1994). The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith, James A. (1991). Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite. New York: Free Press.


American Enterprise Institute. Available from

Brookings Institution. Available from

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Available from

Cato Institute. Available from

Confessore, Nicholas. (2003). "How James Glassman Reinvented Journalism—As Lobbying." Washington Monthly, December. Available from

Heritage Foundation. Available from

Institute for Policy Studies. Available from

Urban Institute. Available from