Ken Silverstein — Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Donor Perks and the Industry of Ideas

The April 24, 2013 Lab seminar was led by Ken Silverstein, an Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Fellow and investigative reporter who recently completed an Open Society Foundation fellowship on corruption and the international energy industry. Silverstein's research is specifically concerned with institutional corruption of think tanks in the context of wider institutional corruption of American political culture. With specific focus on think tanks' widespread refusal to disclose donor information, he also explored declining standards for both staff and research, production of research biased towards donor interests, and several anecdotes of dubious think tank activities. In addition to think tanks' influence on policymaking and research, Silverstein presented a personal account of difficulties he (and Edmond J. Safra Fellow and co-author Brooke Williams) experienced when publishing pieces for the New Republic on think tanks, specifically a story involving the Center for American Progress, which shares personal ties and political affiliations with the magazine and its staff.

In considering the dependence of nonprofits on donor funding, participants questioned how think tanks could preserve their scholarly independence while accepting private contributions, especially from corporations. Arguing that money almost always comes with strings attached, Silverstein noted that think tanks, which purport to be "neutral, unbiased, impartial organizations that produce research based on the interests of their fellows," sometimes mislead the public by producing research favorable to a major donor without disclosing their affiliations. By mislabeling their organizations' activities, think tanks, many of which are increasingly veering from their original purpose of providing independent research, engage in institutional corruption. When journalists, policymakers, and the public take such research at face value, such activities not only inherently violate their trust, but also warp political decision-making towards big spenders' interests rather than the public interest. Using the Center for American Progress as a primary example during the seminar, Silverstein maintained that these trends characterized liberal as well as conservative policymaking, which often receives the most criticism for financial manipulation.

The discussion also prominently featured the distinction between the motivations of financial incentive and ideological affinity behind donations to think tanks. One participant argued that banning corporate donations completely would be an easy way to prevent powerful financial interests from molding public policy; while another participant argued that the source of a donation (e.g. wealthy individual vs. wealthy corporation) made little difference since the amount of money would influence the think tanks' actions regardless. Discussion of widespread financial incentives for setting particular agendas led participants to question whether there is an "influence illusion" wherein individuals believe think tanks are providing the objective truth or if they are aware of such organizations' biases. If this is not so, the speaker proposed that the paradigm of think tanks has already shifted away from an expectation of impartiality.

Another important discussion highlighted the difference between scholarship and advocacy. Participants argued that think tanks are supposed to engage in the former, starting with a research question pertinent to policy and finding the answer to the best of their ability. However, more and more think tanks, without informing the public, blend such activities with advocacy, which starts with a particular position and provides explanations as to why it is the most advisable. With think tanks so reluctant to disclose their financial information, participants contemplated two paths to addressing their decline. First, pressuring think tanks to change their practices, or to discredit them and encourage Congress not to blindly trust their findings. Participants concluded that think tanks do play a role in bridging academics and politics, leading to a debate about the possibilities of rating think tanks based on the quality of their research or financial transparency.

In summary, participants discussed the allowable influence of donor contributions to think tanks, avoidance tactics regarding their financial information, as well as their misleading influence on policymaking and public opinion. They considered specific examples of corporations and industries providing significant funding to pursue research conclusions rather than research questions, and concluded by contemplating possible paths forward from such institutional corruption.