Should Think Tanks Collaborate (More)?

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has a solution for the fake news epidemic: better collaboration among think tanks. “In an era of ‘fake news,’ with a president-elect who regularly lies and partisan hacks who dispute that there are such things as ‘facts,’ think tanks seem more important than ever,” Rubin wrote.

Among her specific recommendations for improving the quality and salience of think tanks’s ouput, Rubin would like to see more efforts to dispel false rumors, and confirm the accurate ones. For example, “a joint project confirming Russian attempts to interfere with our and our allies’ elections.” 

She also suggests that “reducing think tank partisanship and involving those outside the Beltway might go a long way toward finding legislative consensus and stimulating civil debate.”

But one of her other suggestions particularly caught my eye: civil debate and respectful disagreement.

Think tanks like to put on programs featuring a parade of essentially like-minded experts. There is much more to be gained by, say, the Cato Institute inviting professional colleagues from, say, the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss American support for democratic values in the world. If nothing else, inculcating an atmosphere of convivial debate may spread to pundits, lawmakers, activists and voters themselves. 

As it happens, Cato did host a colleague from the Council on Foreign Relations just a few weeks ago, to discuss a recent paper on North Korea. And I think that we generally do a pretty good job of assembling panels of speakers who are not all singing from the same playbook, but who instead disagree with one another, from time to time, and usually in a civil and respectful way. In short, we already collaborate quite a bit.

But I decided to test my assumptions. With the help of my able assistant James Knupp, I compiled a list of the 16 public events hosted and organized by the defense and foreign policy department in 2016. All but one included participants from institutions other than Cato, a total of 42 speakers. Of these, nearly 60 percent (25) are not primarily affiliated with a think tank, but rather work as full-time professors at a major research university. This is consistent with Rubin’s suggestion that DC think tanks reach beyond the Beltway, and it reflects Cato’s ongoing commitment to expand outreach between academia and the policy community. This effort includes our visiting fellows program, and the publication of papers by non-Cato scholars in the academy (e.g. here and here). 

Of the 17 speakers from think tanks, many major institutions were represented, including Brookings (3 times); and CNAS, CSIS, and New America (2 times, each); as well as the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, Hoover, RAND, and USIP.

And, as it happens, we’re continuing this tradition into the new year. Our first foreign policy event of 2017, on January 17th, features, among others, Kathleen Hicks from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and will be moderated by the Post’s own Karen DeYoung. I will be thrilled if Rubin attends. If she does, she will see that we value a frank discussion of ideas, ones that do not fit within neatly partisan labels.

The open question arising from Rubin’s suggestion for greater collaboration among think tanks is whether that will actually cause people to change their minds, especially about facts that challenge preconceived notions, or that are uncomfortable. But, despite what I’ve read about cognitive shortcuts (e.g. confirmation bias), and of experts’ collective inability to influence major events (the 2016 presidential election being merely the latest case in point), I’m willing to give it a try. So I look forward to speaking at many think tanks around town in 2017, just as I’m sure we’ll continue to welcome their experts here.