China Center for International Economic Exchanges

Development of World Leading Think Tanks and Its Enlightenment
Date:Sep 02,2016    Source:CCIEE

Guangming Daily Edition 16 of 10 August 2016

Editor’s note: Due to the entrusted study and survey task for the research project Comparative Study of Mechanism of the World Leading Think Tanks, five scholars from CCIEE recently conducted a field visit to several top think tanks in the United States. The delegation successively visited Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Brookings Institution, Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), Heritage Foundation, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Pew Research Center and The Atlantic Council. They exchanged thorough views on roles of American think tanks, especially the internal management mechanism and operation mode. Proceeding from the perspective of the current demand to construct new think tanks with Chinese characteristics, the delegation reflected deeply and put forward some practical proposals.

Management and Operation Features of Current American Think Tanks

American think tanks have relatively stable funding sources and have formed social donation-based diversified financing mechanism with plenty of funds to support research.

In the United States, fund raising is an important regular task in think tanks and a lot of think tanks are equipped with a relatively large working team. Most think tanks have got diversified financing channels including social donation, government funding, market-oriented operation profit, foreign donation, individual donation, PPP mode, entrusted research project fund, and etc.

The Brookings possesses the asset of $ 300 million, 20 research centers, three overseas agencies, 400 working staff, 200 non-resident visiting researchers and 60 to70 visiting scholars as well. Its annual budget is $91 million to $100 million, among which 80% from donations, 10% from financial transaction profit and the rest from training and publication. 80% of donation comes from individuals, 5% from funds, 15% from governments including the United States, United Arab Emirates, Denmark , and etc. About $ 75 million of the budget is applied to research.

In terms of the Carnegie Endowment, 45% of its annual budget comes from donation, and research expenditure accounts for more than 50% of the total.

The Heritage Foundation has more than 300 employees including 80 researchers, and its annual budget is $ 75 million. Its funding resource covers special fund and also a wide range of social contributions. The Heritage Foundation represents the conservative government, and therefore its donors are mainly Republicans with as many as 600,000 individual donors and the amount of donations ranging from $ 20 to $ 1 million.

CSIS owns about 300 full-time researchers and about 250 partnership networking experts. The annual funding reaches $ 44 million, of which 32% from company, 29% from foundation donation and 19% from government contribution. About 70 to 80 companies provide regular financial support to CSIS, and among them Rolls-Royce Motors and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are the two largest donators.

The Pew Research Center is noted for its survey of public opinion, attitude and behavior that has more than 60 researchers and 40 specialized personnel responsible for digital reports, graphic design, and etc. Its annual funding of about $28 million is mainly from social donations.

In the United States, the core research fellows are top scholars or academic leaders who enjoy a very high status in think tanks and there is a complete supporting and security system.

In leading American think tanks, most researchers are top scholars or academic leaders. The Brookings has high requirements for its researchers. Generally speaking, three criteria should be reached: academic leader in his research field, forward-looking vision and great influence in the public domain. Its recruitment process and academic standards are much close with that of Harvard, Yale and other top American universities and colleges. Now there are 100 senior fellows, 100 research assistants and 20 supporting staff. Its researchers have deep academic accumulation and some have government working experience or are former government officials. They are deeply rooted in all areas, holding forward-thinking and broad vision with the ability to participate in public policy dialogue and influence policy-makers.

American think tanks are good at utilizing media and internet platform to expand their own influence. The Brookings Institute continuously provides policy consultation service to government, often participates in government’s hearings and has a frequent voice in the media. It disseminates its view points through holding seminars and publishing books. CSIS upholds the concept of “our products change public policy”. Therefore, they set the objectives to define what influence the projects aim to exert on policy when they select specific research projects. When the Carnegie Endowment puts forward some policy proposals different from the government’s claims, they usually hold seminars with participation of government officials and make their own voice heard through internet and large-scale conferences.

American think tanks practise president responsibility system. The employees include administrative leaders, experts, research assistants, documenters, executive secretaries and service staff. All the think tanks treat researchers as their core competitiveness and generally pay attention to the rational allocation of researchers and non-researchers. Researchers enjoy a high position in think tanks and all the think tanks have complete supporting and security system for research to improve the working efficiency of researchers and quality of their products. Most of the think tanks we visited set boards as decision guarantee agencies and their organizational forms tend to be flat so as to provide adequate freedom for research. In the Brookings, under the president, there are two institutions that are academic research and administrative management. The academic research institution includes five research departments which are foreign policy, global economy and development, economic policy, urban policy and governance research. The administrative management institution covers five departments which are finance, operation, communication, development and publication. The Brookings provides every senior fellow with assistants who are newly graduated young researchers. The assistants may “revolve” into governments to be public servants after working for a period of time and they may also choose to go back to think tanks afterwards.

Researchers enjoy high income and considerable autonomy in their own research.

The income gap between researchers and non-researchers in American think tanks is large. Annual income of administrative staff in the Carnegie Endowment and the Brooking is about 1/3 to 1/4 that of the researchers. The gap in PIIE is even bigger. Administrative positions are mostly held by young people. Even though, they might have chance to work in the government departments and other institutions. The average annual salary of researchers in the Brookings is around $150,000. It’s a little bit higher for those of the economic research field and lower for those with the education background of sociology and politics. What attracts researchers most is not the salary, but the prestige of the think tanks.

Researchers in American think tanks have much working autonomy and full study task. Some researchers can set research topics by themselves. They don’t have to involve in miscellaneous administrative work and they don’t need to participate in the meetings unrelated to research. When they attend the meetings or discussions they choose, they can leave at any time if the topics are irrelevant to their own research. They don’t have to complete various forms to ensure sufficient time for research.

 The unique “revolving door” mechanism for talents has been formed and think tanks have become an important talent “reserve pool” for American politics.

The US government is renewed every four years and more than 4,000 federal officials need to be replaced with about 60% coming from think tanks, colleges and universities. The think tanks we visited expressed their firm adherence to the principle of independence, openness, non-profit and non-partisanship. The Brookings Institution signs contracts with its researchers every year to ensure their commitment of non-partisanship. Otherwise, they should resign. When they participate in the election process, they cannot occupy their working time or use the office resources of the Brookings. Junior researchers and research assistants, though low paid than senior fellows, have the change to work in government. After their experience in government, they may come back to the Brookings as senior fellows. Therefore this work is still a big attraction. In addition, if the Democratic Party takes power, they would select a large number of researchers from think tanks who have conducted studies in major national strategies and policies. Then the majority of those left in the think tanks and newly recruited researchers would have the Republican background. While the Republican Party in power, most researchers with Republican background would enter the government and think tanks would obtain relatively a lot of researchers with tendency of the Democratic Party.

The internal management mechanism is sound. More than half of the management positions are responsible for fund raising and operation. There is only a small number of administrative staff.

The proportion of researchers and non-researchers at the Brookings is equal. More than half of the non-researchers take charge of fund raising and part of the rest non-researchers are responsible for international exchanges. Only very few of non-researchers manage purely administrative work. The administrative work provides strong service and guarantee for research. CSIS hosts around 2,600 seminars every year to establish international communication platform. A large portion of its fund is used for holding seminars. The Brookings values balance of payments to make sure that its fund can address the financial demand of current and long-term research projects. Also by efficient fund management, it ensures that all research projects can be carried out smoothly. No matter the financial supporter is whether the government or a company, neither of them can interfere with research topics or findings. Operation and research are separated from each other. Corporate management mode is applied to daily operation with the CEO bearing responsibility. The fund is mainly used for research projects. More than half expenditure of a project will be directly paid to its researchers in accordance with the budget. Income from research project is part of salary and paid to researcher’s account directly. When the earnings from delivering lectures outside the think tanks reach 5,000 US dollars, they need to report to the responsible vice president for the record.

Enlightenment from American think tanks’ development

American think tanks play a unique role in the nation’s political life. At present, economic globalization advances fast, environment and conditions for decision-making become more and more complicated increasingly and the government is facing unprecedented challenges. Modern think tanks, with their broad vision, high specialization and constructive ability of complex issues, have become an important support to the quality and effectiveness of government decision-making. To participate in global competition and campaign to gain global discourse power and also address the internal demand of Chinese society to achieve a smooth transformation, it is necessary to establish new think tanks with Chinese characteristic. In order to promote the modernization of our governance system and capacity, China shall build think tanks complying with the decision-making development requirements of the contemporary society.

From the practice of American think tanks, the general law and special requirements of think tanks’ development can be drawn. Think tanks cherish distinct national features. For new think tanks with Chinese characteristics, the word “characteristics” means upholding the Party's leadership and the socialist system, adhering to the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, serving the great cause of national rejuvenation and realization of the Two Centenary Goals. The development of the US think tanks has its own political factors and we cannot copy it indiscriminately.

However, think tanks also have their regular features that general social organizations do not have. As a main manufacturer of thoughts and ideas, researchers should be the core asset and wealth for think tanks. Therefore, the requirements and features of thought production must be reflected in terms of the management, supervision, motivation and evaluation of researchers. The reason for strong international influence of the US think tanks lies in the fact that they respect and adapt to the thought production rules of the modern society.

American think tanks have different development paths from Chinese think tanks, each with its own advantages and characteristics.

The US think tanks grew out of the overall context of separation of powers and bi-partisan campaign. Many think tanks started from foundations, consortia and other organizations, such as the Carnegie Endowment. The Rand Corporation started its business through cooperation with the US military and it has strong technical background. The US think tanks keep great personnel mobility, high degree of internationalization in research and deep professional background. Most Chinese think tanks are still administrative institutions under the current system with obvious administration features, little international impact, limited research vision and weak professionalism.

A couple of relationships require special attention while building new think tanks with Chinese characteristics. The first relationship is between think tank and government. The key function of think tanks is serving the government. However, the contents and methods of their service are distinct from each other due to their different natures. The second relationship is among research objectives in different periods. Chinese think tanks not only study short-term issues and focus on “news event” in the short term, but also pay close attention to medium-term and long-term issues. Chinese think tanks conduct study and prediction of the overall international environment and domestic political, economic, demographic, environmental, social and other factors in the longer future term China will face. At present, some domestic think tanks over-emphasize on short-term effects of public opinion and this tendency should be avoided. The third relationship is between administration and research. Think tanks must make use of their thoughts and specialized knowledge to serve the decision making, rather than being caught in routine and general operational work. If this relationship cannot be properly managed, it will not only affect the quality of knowledge product, but also bring about unnecessary waste. The fourth relationship is among countermeasure, applicability and professionalism. Unlike pure academic research, think tanks must value countermeasure and application in their research, meanwhile they need to focus on consolidating the professional basis. Lack of professional support, the scientificity and applicability of their research will be greatly reduced, and also the basis to communicate with the world-class think tanks at a higher level will be lost.

Some suggestions for Chinese think tanks.

We should encourage diversified types and development of Chinese think tanks. In order to better maintain national interests in the international arena and to reflect our propositions, diversified and multi-level think tank system should be established to embody think tanks’ independence and distinctive features.

We need provide institutional guarantee and sound social environment for the development of think tanks. Most of our think tanks are born out of administrative bodies or institutions. In terms of management philosophy, management methods and etc., they still retain strong administrative color and have low social credibility and recognition with the lack of support policy for funding. We should study and make supportive policies on social fund raising and donations for think tanks.

We need address the current outstanding contradiction and problems that restrict the development of think tanks as soon as possible. Under the current system, researchers at Chinese think tanks are basically treated the same as those of the other institutions in terms of business trips abroad, reimbursement of expenses, professional title grading, performance evaluation and so on without reflecting the features of think tanks as thoughts manufacturer. We should take the time to introduce policies to gradually address these problems.

We need to speed up getting through the “revolving door” for talents. Think tanks’ personnel have not only solid expertise and broad perspective, but also full understanding and rich practical experience of the national conditions. We should establish corresponding mechanisms as soon as possible to promote think tanks’ personnel to work in government, business and other social organizations. Channels will be further unimpeded to absorb social talents.

We need to establish specialized training channels and mechanisms for think tanks’ personnel. It is of great importance for the construction of Chinese think tanks with Chinese characteristics to cultivate a group of high level think tanks’ talents in the next 5to10 years. We should take time to make plan for talent development and clear the development objectives and make personalized training programs. We can draw some researchers of high political quality and strong research capabilities from the existing think tanks as the targeted core trainees. We can arrange these selected ones to get practice in comprehensive economic departments and institutions abroad or to exchange in foreign think tanks. If necessary, foreign language learning and specialized communication skills training can be provided to gradually form talent succession.

(Delegation head: Zhang Dawei; Member: Chen Wenling, Wang Jun, Xu Zhanchen, Zhang Huanbo, Liu Xiangdong; Author: Xu Zhanchen)

 

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