Brooke Williams and Ken Silverstein — Think Tanks and Institutional Corruption: Proposed Solutions

The September 18, 2013, Lab seminar was led by Lab Fellows Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams on possible and proposed solutions for institutional corruption in think tanks. This is their second year of studying think tanks at the Edmond J. Safra Center Lab. While their Spring 2013 Lab seminar focused on the implications of their initial findings, this time around their presentation contemplated action steps to encourage accountability from think tanks. Silverstein began the seminar with a brief summary of his investigation into the work of think tanks and instances where such institutions have been influenced by large donors to skew their scholarship in one direction or another, as well as their reluctantance to disclose donor information to the public. He also questioned the validity of think tanks being classified as 501c(3) nonprofits and argued that the federal government should require a higher degree of financial transparency due to their tax-exempt status. Seminar participants pushed back on the idea that think tanks have the ability to achieve the type of neutrality and independence desired, or that they are unique in having to govern at least some of their actions based on the need for funding. Silverstein, however, defended the seemly extraordinary scrutiny of think tanks based on the trust placed in their testimony during legislative proceedings compared to for-profit consulting firms for example.

Williams then presented preliminary findings from the database she has been building, which so far has documented about $2.3 billion in donations from foreign governments and corporations to think tanks in the past few years, and found 72 people currently registered as lobbyists who also serve as think tank scholars, in some cases on related topics. This year she is developing and launching a user-friendly website to enable journalists, activists, academics and others to explore the think tank database. She also is collaborating on a checklist for think tanks to try and avoid conflicts of interest and other factors that contribute to institutional corruption. One seminar participant argued that another way to think about why think tanks affect the legislative process so effectively is that inviting "experts" to testify on issues grants them political monopoly on issues and insulates them from public scrutiny. Other participants questioned whether full transparency is wise given the moral license effect that might occur when those who do disclose their biases feel more empowered to provide biased testimonies. Silverstein and Williams acknowledged that simple disclosure of donor sources would not be sufficient to reform the relationship between think tanks, industry and government, but that it should be a baseline requirement. Armed with this information, reformers would be able to build a more substantial movement to counteract institutional corruption in academia and government.

Going forward, it was agreed that the issue of balancing desire for transparency and incentivizing scholars to study relevant public policy issues needed further attention. Especially given the burden of filing copious amounts of paperwork typified by government positions, the contrast between think tank employees' right to privacy and measures that might prevent conflicts of interest from slipping under the radar will be crucial to understanding how to address institutional corruption in think tanks.

-Summary composed by Ivy Yan