We Need to Reimagine the Modern Think Tank

Article by Emma Vadehra: “We are in the midst of a great realignment in policymaking. After an era-defining pandemic, which itself served as backdrop to a generations-in-the-making reckoning on racial injustice, the era of policy incrementalism is giving way to broad, grassroots demands for structural change. But elected officials are not the only ones who need to evolve. As the broader policy ecosystem adjusts to a post-2020 world, think tanks that aim to provide the intellectual backbone to policy movements—through research, data analysis, and evidence-based recommendation—need to change their approach as well.

Think tanks may be slower to adapt because of long-standing biases around what qualifies someone to be a policy “expert.” Traditionally, think tanks assess qualifications based on educational attainment and advanced degrees, which has often meant prioritizing academic credentials over lived or professional experience on the ground. These hiring preferences alone leave many people out of the debates that shape their lives: if think tanks expect a master’s degree for mid-level and senior research and policy positions, their pool of candidates will be limited to the 4 percent of Latinos and 7 percent of Black people with those degrees (lower than the rates among white people (10.5 percent) or Asian/Pacific Islanders (17 percent)). And in specific fields like Economics, from which many think tanks draw their experts, just 0.5 percent of doctoral degrees go to Black women each year.

Think tanks alone cannot change the larger cultural and societal forces that have historically limited access to certain fields. But they can change their own practices: namely, they can change how they assess expertise and who they recruit and cultivate as policy experts. In doing so, they can push the broader policy sector—including government and philanthropic donors—to do the same. Because while the next generation marches in the streets and runs for office, the public policy sector is not doing enough to diversify and support who develops, researches, enacts, and implements policy. And excluding impacted communities from the decision-making table makes our democracy less inclusive, responsive, and effective.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I at The Century Foundation, a 100-year-old think tank that has weathered many paradigm shifts in policymaking, launched an organization, Next100, to experiment with a new model for think tanks. Our mission was simple: policy by those with the most at stake, for those with the most at stake. We believed that proximity to the communities that policy looks to serve will make policy stronger, and we put muscle and resources behind the theory that those with lived experience are as much policy experts as anyone with a PhD from an Ivy League university. The pandemic and heightened calls for racial justice in the last year have only strengthened our belief in the need to thoughtfully democratize policy development. While it’s common understanding now that COVID-19 has surfaced and exacerbated profound historical inequities, not enough has been done to question why those inequities exist, or why they run so deep. How we make policy—and who makes it—is a big reason why….(More)”