Brookings New Year's Resolution: Reveal More about Foreign Government Funding

by Brooke Williams

The Brookings Institution, one of the most influential think tanks in the world, plans to publicly disclose more details in 2014 about money it receives from foreign governments.

The move is in response to a letter the Lab at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics sent to Brookings and 11 other think tanks in August 2013, signed by this author and the Lab’s director, Larry Lessig, asking them to voluntarily disclose the amounts and purposes of donations from foreign governments.

David Nassar, vice president of communications for Brookings, said the think tank is conducting an internal review of its disclosure policies and will begin discussions with its 19 foreign government donors next year about new policies it would like to put in place.

With the exception of the relatively few who ask to remain anonymous--none of which are foreign governments--Brookings already publishes donors’ names in its annual report, grouped by funding ranges. The ranges are fairly broad, with a top tier of $1 million or more, leaving a lot to the imagination.

In the most recent report, the United Arab Emirates is the only foreign government named in the top tier. Others include Qatar, Norway, Switzerland, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Korea, Canada and France.

Nassar said that the Edmond J. Safra Ethics Lab’s letter was the first time anyone had requested specific amounts and purposes of foreign government donations, and it prompted a series of internal discussions. While Brookings wants to take immediate steps to become more transparent, it also needs to consider contracts and agreements with donors.

So far, Brookings is the only think tank to respond affirmatively to the request. This is despite the fact that some foreign government donors already deem the information public. Take Norway, which upon request quickly supplied a detailed budget of its $1 million grant to Brookings for a project on climate change.

Among other things, the budget shows more than half the grant paid for salaries and benefits of specific scholars at the think tank. In some cases, scholars are aware of the funding relationship, Nassar said, but Brookings has strict policies in place to prevent donors from influencing research.

“Brookings research is published whether a donor agrees with it or not, and there are no exceptions to this,” he said. “We don’t sign agreements where the research is subject to the donors’ discretion.”

Nassar provided a copy of Brookings’ internal “Donor Recognition Guidelines,” which outline specific policies meant to ensure donors have no real or perceived influence over scholars’ work. The first item in a list of “guiding principles” states that Brookings “will at all times maintain an independent position on policy issues its scholars are researching.”

“To protect the quality of the work of the Institution, its donors, policymakers and the public, Brookings does not accept gifts from donors who seek to undermine the independence of its scholars’ research or to otherwise predetermine or influence recommendations or final direction,” the guidelines state.

At the same time, Brookings permits its scholars to participate in fundraising and interact privately with donors.

Any donor who gives $50,000 or more is entitled to “private briefings with Brookings scholars.” And in its Conflict of Interest Policy, Brookings provides a hypothetical situation in which it would be acceptable for a scholar to vacation with a donor:

“A Brookings Senior Fellow is invited to join a $100,000 donor at the donor’s vacation home in Telluride to ski during the Christmas holidays. The Institution is cultivating the donor to make an eight-figure endowment gift. The donor makes it clear to the scholar that she has invited “a few friends” to a dinner on Christmas Eve and that she hopes the scholar will “say a few words” about his latest manuscript. The scholar informs the relevant Development and Executive Office personnel who provide additional information to the scholar about the donor’s interests and affiliations. Because the scholar is engaging in legitimate donor cultivation, he does not have a conflict of interest.”

Nassar said Brookings’ reports are peer-reviewed internally, and scholars must document and report interactions with donors.