The study of think tanks brings together a range of academic disciplines and allows for multifaceted analyses, encompassing the concepts of ideas, institutions, influence, interests, and power. The literature on think tanks addresses a ubiquitous policy actor as think tanks have been around for a long time, especially in advanced liberal democracies. However, they have also become established actors in authoritarian regimes and in the developing world. Nowhere is their influence on policymaking or the public debate easy to pinpoint.
The definition of a think tank has been contested ever since the study of think tanks took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Some scholars have devised typologies around organizational form and output, with a focus on whether think tanks are openly partisan or rather emphasize their political and ideological neutrality; others propose that the think tank is not so much a clearly discernible organizational entity but rather should be seen as a set of activities that can be conducted by a broad range of organizations; others again see think tanks as hybrid boundary organizations operating at the interstices of different societal fields. What most scholars will agree on is that policy expertise is think tanks’ main output, that they seek to influence policymakers and the wider public, and that they try to do so via informal and formal channels and by making use of their well-connected position in often transnational policy networks encompassing political parties, interest groups, corporations, international organizations, civil society organizations, and civil service bureaucracies.
Think tanks’ main output, policy expertise either in the form of concrete proposals or “blue-skies thinking,” is underpinned by claims that it is “evidence-based.” The widely used positivist notion of “evidence-based policymaking” has been of benefit to think tanks as organizations that claim to “speak truth to power” by producing easily digestible outputs aimed at policymakers who profess to want evidence to make policy “that works.”
Think tanks are active at different “moments” in the policymaking process. John Kingdon’s agenda-setting theory of the multiple streams framework helps us understand think tanks as “policy entrepreneurs” who are most likely to have influence during the moments of problem framing, the search for policy solutions, and the promotion of specific solutions to policymakers and the public.
Think tank studies should take into account the relationship between the media and think tanks, and how this relationship impacts on whether think tanks succeed in agenda-setting and, thereby, influence policymaking. The relationship is symbiotic: journalists use think tanks to inform their work or welcome their contribution in the form of an opinion piece, while think tanks use the media to air their ideas. This relationship is not without problems, as some think tanks are in privileged positions with regards to media access while others barely ever cross the media threshold.
Think tanks are, in the 21st century, challenged by an “epistemic crisis.” This crisis consists of a loss of faith in experts and of information pollution and information overload. This development is both a risk and an opportunity for think tanks. Concerning the latter, policymakers increasingly need curators, arbiters, or filters to help them decide which information, data, and policy expertise to use in their decision-making processes.