This house would force think tanks to reveal all of their sources of funding

Think tanks are a modern phenomenon, where high profiling intellectuals are given a free role to discover, investigate and solve important issues in order to affect public policy. The purpose of a think tank is to provide expert advice and ideas on economic or political problems; usually a think tank has a particular area of expertise and focuses their study on that area. Their purpose is then not to propagate a political agenda but to look at facts, ideas, and possible new policies. In practice however this results in particular think tanks promoting policies that have a particular political orientation.

Despite the political leanings of some think tanks are often elevated to a status of impartial enlightenment and their voice has great impact on the paradigm and on public discourse. They publish academic material, hold seminars, and appear as authorities on particular areas in the media.[1] However, lately, voices are being raised calling for their increased transparency on their sources of funding. Of particular note the EU Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas argued that as think tanks play a clear role in EU policymaking they should sign up to the European Commission's voluntary lobbyists register.[2] This would not require complete details of their funding but would require they “declare the interests, objectives or aims promoted and, where applicable, specify the clients or members whom they represent”.[3]

The model for think tanks disclosing their funders would require organisations to make public all contributions that constitute a significant portion of the organisations’ budget. This can take the form of a percentage, e.g. 1% of their budget. This would make them unable to receive anonymous donations over this sum. The major funders would then have to be disclosed along with any research they funded and would be on the think tank’s website.

[1] Ricci, David M. “The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks”, 1993.

[2] “Lobby transparency spotlight falls on think-tanks”, Euractiv, 20 April 2009, http://www.euractiv.com/pa/lobby-transparency-spotlight-fal-news-221636

[3] Europa.eu, “Code of Conduct”, Transparency Register, 8 April 2013, http://europa.eu/transparency-register/about-register/code-of-conduct/index_en.htm

 

Title 
People have a right to know where their information comes from
Point 

Democracies rely on transparency. Our commitment to transparency means surrendering part of our autonomy for the collective. This does not mean that our autonomy does not still belong to us; the institutions that affect our lives are under a constant obligation to justify their decisions and existence in relation to us. I do not have a right to know everything about the local football club (if I don’t play football and they are not a public company their decisions don’t affect me). Think tanks, however, are highly influential, and directly affect the society in which we live: some have, for example, lobbied successfully against action to prevent global warming.[1] Therefore they are to be considered a power in society, and the principle of transparency must be extended to them.

[1] Monbiot, George. “The educational charities that do PR for the rightwing ultra-rich”, Comment is Free, The Guardian. 18 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/18/charities-pr-rightwing-ultra-rich

Counterpoint 

Think tanks don’t have any legislative power. At the end of the day, what they do is merely make suggestions. If they were active lobbyists they would lose their privileged legal position as an academic organisation.[1] Even if there may be other benefits of them being transparent, the legal concept of transparency cannot be extended to them. That would open the door to forcing other independent private institutions to reveal details of their organisation. Furthermore, think tanks rarely claim to be completely impartial. They usually have an agenda and are aligned with a political party. This concession in terms of impartiality merits equal concessions in terms of demanded transparency. At the end of the day it is their work that influences the agenda and that same work shows where their sympathies lie.

[1] “The Political Activity of Think Tanks: The Case for Mandatory Contributor Disclosure”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 115, No. 5, March 2002, pp. 1502-1524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342554

Title 
Think tanks’ power of objectivity is the best form of marketing for biased views
Point 

Think tanks are considered more credible than corporate marketing.[1] In the case of corporate marketing the recipient is aware that he is being sold a product. In the case of think tanks, the recipient believes he is being given unbiased information. Therefore, it is tempting for corporations to finance think tanks and encourage them to reach the conclusions that they otherwise would promote through marketing. This way, think tanks can be powerful tools for promoting a biased agenda: if done successfully the same message is communicated but in the form of credible information rather than manipulative marketing. In fact, it is common practice for journalists to quote think tanks without labelling their political bias.[2] And they most certainly don’t say if there is funding from a particular interest for example with the supposedly free market Institute of Public Affairs in Australia that somehow ends up arguing for government investment and intervention in Northern Australia – a position suspiciously close to several big mining companies.[3] This violates people’s freedom to make an informed decision, and can give biased views disproportionate and undue influence. By forcing them to disclose, any corruption or bias will become obvious to all.

[1] Mayer, Jane. “Covert Operations”, A Reporter at Large, The New Yorker. 30 August 2010 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer

[2] Dolny, Michael. “What’s in a Label?”, Extra!, FAIR. 1 May 1998 http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/Whats-in-a-Label/

[3] MediaWatch, “Disclosing the funding of think tanks”, ABC News, 27 May 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3768536.htm

Counterpoint 

It does not matter if think tanks are used in this way, so long as the conclusions that are reached by the think tanks are true. If there is objective value in an idea it should be communicated as well as possible. If this cannot be done with conventional marketing, it is good for it to be possible through a think tank. If the think tank’s idea and conclusion is wrong, the fact that it is presented objectively makes it no less falsifiable. Think tanks do not exist in a vacuum, and for every false idea presented as positive there will be another think tank to scrutinise it. In either case, the consumer is given useful information in an accessible way that can still be questioned.

Title 
The status quo promotes non-transparency
Point 

Non-disclosure can be perceived as objectivity. It is easier for the public to criticise a think tank that is openly associated with a particular funder. That kind of prejudice is stronger than the more general the prejudice against non-disclosure. A person might distrust a non-transparent think tank, but dislike a think tank that is funded by an organisation they are already prejudiced towards.[1] In any comparison between two such organisations the distrusted organisation will have greater impact than the disliked organisation.[2] This gives non-transparent think tanks an advantage over transparent and honest ones. Billionaires are then able to buy influence by secretly funding organisations such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation or the Institute of Economic Affairs that is then listened to, by the media and therefore the public, when their own views would simply be dismissed due to the personal motivations of the backers.[3] By forcing all think tanks to reveal their funding, we level the playing field.

[1] Bentley, Guy. “The state funding swindle: how left wing think-tanks are pulling taxpayer-funded wool over our eyes”, Commentary, The Commentator. 20 September 2012, http://www.thecommentator.com/article/1679/the_state_funding_swindle_how_left_wing_think_tanks_are_pulling_taxpayer_funded_wool_over_our_eyes

[2] “The Political Activity of Think Tanks: The Case for Mandatory Contributor Disclosure”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 115, No. 5, March 2002, pp. 1502-1524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342554

[3] Monbiot, George. “The educational charities that do PR for the rightwing ultra-rich”, Comment is Free, The Guardian. 18 February 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/18/charities-pr-rightwing-ultra-rich

Counterpoint 

It is already in the interest of think tanks to be transparent. Think tanks exist in societies that depend on open communication and the free flow of ideas. Numerous organisations exist to criticise and unmask non-transparent think tanks:[1] this is sufficient incentive for them to reveal their funding. There may be exceptions in which the benefits of non-disclosure overrule the disadvantages in terms of trust, but these are rare, and it does not follow that it will be abused.

[1] Who Funds You, Political Innovationhttp://www.whofundsyou.org/about

Title 
Legally requiring disclosure from all benefits think tanks
Point 

Even think tanks benefit from the introduction of this policy. The status quo leaves disclosure as a strategic device: think tanks are unwilling to disclose more than their competition for fear of being unfavourably portrayed. Such negative competition, i.e. competition in factors that do not improve the products of the market, makes them unable to make rational decisions about their funding if, for instance, potential funders want to contribute only on the condition that this funding be made public. As a consequence, the advent of organisations who call for transparency has been praised by prominent think tanks like the New Economics Foundation.[1] By depriving everybody of the strategic tool of revealing none or only a part of their funding, think tanks cannot be pressured into hiding or providing certain information about their funders, and they can thus act more independently.

[1] Read, Sam. “Think tank funding matters: it’s central to democracy”, the nef blog, 22 June 2012, http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/think-tank-funding-matters-its-central-to-democracy

Counterpoint 

Think tanks can choose transparency in the status quo anyway (as shown by nef): this benefit is relatively small. On the other hand, it harms the many other think tanks that need to protect the information of who funds them if, for instance, the funders do not wish to disclose it. It is a loss of freedom for the majority, not a gain.

Title 
Think tanks may become smoke screens for criminal groups
Point 

In the status quo, the ability of think tanks to be non-transparent potentially provides a framework for criminal groups, or in extreme cases organisations, to handle large amounts of money without revealing where their money comes from or goes. We are allowing extremist groups to be exempt from answering to the government or shareholders in their management of money or information. In the US and Canada, think tanks are also exempt from tax.[1] By this mechanism, false think tanks can be used, for example, to channel money from openly extremist groups that could otherwise not access those parts of the world.

[1] 26 USC § 501 - Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc., Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/501

Counterpoint 

There is no necessity to disclose think tank funding publically in order to circumvent this issue. As long as there are public institutions that scrutinise think tanks and are also bound to secrecy unless there are anomalies, the risk of terrorism can be successfully regulated. Being a think tank does not prevent an organisation from having to be transparent to government about their finances. It is unnecessary to expose think tanks that do not act illicitly to the general public.

Title 
Think tanks should be able to choose not to know who funds them
Point 

The information think tanks provide can be extremely useful to society. Therefore we should be hesitant to restrict their key strength, which is their independence. There may be scenarios in which think tanks, in need of funding for a purely positive project, ask for donations from anyone who believes in their values. Wanting to avoid any negative associations or any accusations of bias, they choose not to find out who their funders are, and thus they cannot disclose that information. For think tanks who claim independence by only asking for anonymous donors, this is no longer an option when they are forced to disclose. The attempt to create more objectivity actually removes one of the ways of being perfectly impartial.

Counterpoint 

Such a system, in which one allows think tanks to accept substantial anonymous donations, has immense downsides. It is simply too easy for a think tank to claim all, or most, of its funding is anonymous to them when it is questioned, while in fact they have been having informal strategic talks with potential funders days prior to, during, or after the donation. We cannot adopt a policy that is so easy too abuse, and since all think tanks must know who their funders are, we are not restricting their independence any further by asking them to make it public.

Title 
Overregulating think tanks sets a dangerous precedent
Point 

The public scrutiny on think tank funders may backlash on perfectly innocent investors. Investors may be accused of corruption if think tanks that share their values independently reach favourable conclusions. Alternatively, minor investors may become guilty by association, for instance, if notorious companies or political parties have been seen supporting the same think tanks – even if this is done for completely different reasons. The motivations of think tanks cannot be made synonymous with their funders, but these funders should also not be made synonymous with each other. Thus for example Policy exchange is both seen as a think tank for UK conservative modernisers – the progressive wing of the party while also having been labelled as a “neo-con attack dog”.[1]

[1] Helm, Toby, and Hope, Christopher, “The top twelve think tanks in Britain”, The Telegraph, 24 January 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/1576447/The-top-twelve-think-tanks-in-Britain.html

Counterpoint 

This is not an inherent flaw in the system. In the status quo, large investors can still publically advertise the fact that they are funding a project, and this too can have repercussions and bring negative associations for other investors. It is a risk anyone makes when investing in a given idea. The right to privacy of investors in political campaigns was discarded once evidence of potential abuses and political arrangements surfaced. Similarly, this right cannot apply to think tank funders.[1]

[1] “The Political Activity of Think Tanks: The Case for Mandatory Contributor Disclosure”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 115, No. 5, March 2002, pp. 1502-1524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342554

Title 
Being subject to scrutiny discourages investors from supporting good projects
Point 

Think tanks depend largely on voluntary funding for their projects,[1] so they must be careful when risking potential investments. Investors are likely to be put off from funding think tanks with good aims if this funding will be scrutinised and their interests questioned.[2] They are likely not to wish to risk being associated with seemingly biased results: a system by which funders can support ideas in themselves, perhaps even anonymously for the think tanks themselves, is the one in which think tanks best flourish and best produce results. Those that produce the best and most interesting ideas will be those who succeed in obtaining funding.

[1] Think Tank Funding, On Think Tanks, http://onthinktanks.org/topic-pages/think-tank-funding/ accessed 11 June 2013

[2] Butcher, Jonathan, “Does it Matter Who Funds You?” One World Trust, 12 July 2012, http://www.oneworldtrust.org/blog/?p=579/

Counterpoint 

On the other hand, by disclosing funders more corporations and individuals will have an incentive to fund think tanks. They will be assured that they will be publically recognised for it, and thus be rewarded when the think tanks they support produce good ideas.

Title 
Think tanks should be assessed by the value of their ideas, not by who funds them
Point 

One can conceive of an infinite amount of cases in which results of a think tank’s research are completely independent of their funders. Their opposition, however, will be likely to signal corruption, when in fact there may be no relation between a funder and certain results. Even if they are associated by sharing a perspective or an aim, this is not a sign of corruption or bias, and it should not enter into the value of a think tank. There has been one study of charity donations (as think tanks are) that concludes that anonymous donations are “a costly signal of a charity’s quality by an informed donor”.[1]

[1] Peacey, Mike W., “Masked Heroes: endogenous anonymity in charitable giving”, Centre for Market and Public Organisation Bristol Institute of Public Affairs, May 2013, p.27 http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cmpo/publications/papers/2013/wp303.pdf

Counterpoint 

People are capable of assessing a biased idea after discovering its bias, while it is dangerous to present potentially biased ideas as genuine, for this limits discussion. This is especially so in the status quo, where the suspicions of who may be funding think tanks remain when they choose not to disclose their funders. A blanket obligation of all think tanks to reveal their funding allows for open discourse and thus more space to discuss the ideas themselves.

Title 
Private investors have a right to privacy
Point 

The public scrutiny on think tank funders may backlash on perfectly innocent investors. Investors may be accused of corruption if think tanks that share their values independently reach favourable conclusions. Alternatively, minor investors may become guilty by association, for instance, if notorious companies or political parties have been seen supporting the same think tanks – even if this is done for completely different reasons. The motivations of think tanks cannot be made synonymous with their funders, but these funders should also not be made synonymous with each other. Thus for example Policy exchange is both seen as a think tank for UK conservative modernisers – the progressive wing of the party while also having been labelled as a “neo-con attack dog”.[1]

[1] Helm, Toby, and Hope, Christopher, “The top twelve think tanks in Britain”, The Telegraph, 24 January 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/1576447/The-top-twelve-think-tanks-in-Britain.html

Counterpoint 

This is not an inherent flaw in the system. In the status quo, large investors can still publically advertise the fact that they are funding a project, and this too can have repercussions and bring negative associations for other investors. It is a risk anyone makes when investing in a given idea. The right to privacy of investors in political campaigns was discarded once evidence of potential abuses and political arrangements surfaced. Similarly, this right cannot apply to think tank funders.[1]

[1] “The Political Activity of Think Tanks: The Case for Mandatory Contributor Disclosure”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 115, No. 5, March 2002, pp. 1502-1524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342554

Bibliography 

Bentley, Guy. “The state funding swindle: how left wing think-tanks are pulling taxpayer-funded wool over our eyes”, Commentary, The Commentator. 20 September 2012, http://www.thecommentator.com/article/1679/the_state_funding_swindle_how_left_wing_think_tanks_are_pulling_taxpayer_funded_wool_over_our_eyes

Butcher, Jonathan, “Does it Matter Who Funds You?” One World Trust, 12 July 2012, http://www.oneworldtrust.org/blog/?p=579/

Dolny, Michael. “What’s in a Label?”, Extra!, FAIR. 1 May 1998 http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/Whats-in-a-Label/

“Lobby transparency spotlight falls on think-tanks”, Euractiv, 20 April 2009, http://www.euractiv.com/pa/lobby-transparency-spotlight-fal-news-221636

Europa.eu, “Code of Conduct”, Transparency Register, 8 April 2013, http://europa.eu/transparency-register/about-register/code-of-conduct/index_en.htm

Friedman, Benjamin H. “You Gotta Serve Somebody”, The Skeptics, The National Interest. 4 January 2011, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-skeptics/you-gotta-serve-somebody-4664

“The Political Activity of Think Tanks: The Case for Mandatory Contributor Disclosure”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 115, No. 5, March 2002, pp. 1502-1524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342554

Helm, Toby, and Hope, Christopher, “The top twelve think tanks in Britain”, The Telegraph, 24 January 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/1576447/The-top-twelve-think-tanks-in-Britain.html

26 USC § 501 - Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc., Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/501

Mayer, Jane. “Covert Operations”, A Reporter at Large, The New Yorker. 30 August 2010 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer

MediaWatch, “Disclosing the funding of think tanks”, ABC News, 27 May 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3768536.htm

Monbiot, George. “The educational charities that do PR for the rightwing ultra-rich”, Comment is Free, The Guardian. 18 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/18/charities-pr-rightwing-ultra-rich

Peacey, Mike W., “Masked Heroes: endogenous anonymity in charitable giving”, Centre for Market and Public Organisation Bristol Institute of Public Affairs, May 2013, p.27 http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cmpo/publications/papers/2013/wp303.pdf

Who Funds You, Political Innovation, http://www.whofundsyou.org/about

Read, Sam. “Think tank funding matters: it’s central to democracy”, the nef blog, 22 June 2012, http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/think-tank-funding-matters-its-central-to-democracy

Ricci, David M. “The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks”, 1993.

Think Tank Funding, On Think Tanks, http://onthinktanks.org/topic-pages/think-tank-funding/ accessed 11 June 2013

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