Prize Question: Why do UK Think Tanks not Communicate Who Funds Them?

If you think you will find the answer to this simple question in the blog below, you will be disappointed. All I’m trying to do is to get you to appreciate the depth of the puzzle, and share your own thoughts on the issue.

First, some unpalatable facts and figures. According to data compiled by Transparify, the initiative I work with, UK think tanks are extreme outliers in terms of their financial opacity. Last time we canvassed the websites of leading think tanks worldwide, we rated over half of major policy shops in the United States as transparent. These think tanks disclose on their websites who funds them and how much each major donor gives, either by grouping givers into broad contribution brackets or – the true gold standard – by listing exactly how much each donor gave, and for what specific purpose.

In sharp contrast, in the UK, only one wonkmill we looked at, the Institute for Public Policy Research, cleared the transparency bar. Even worse, we had to rate three household names (International Institute for Strategic Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs, and LSE IDEAS) as “highly opaque” because they provided virtually or literally no information on who was funding their research and advocacy. Overall, the results indicated that Britain was not only trailing the U.S. by a huge margin, but had one of the most opaque policy research landscapes in Europe and, indeed, worldwide.

In response, we decided to focus our efforts on the UK wonk scene this year. In November, we’ll be rating 27 British think tanks, compared to just 11 last time around, and we’ll be extending our media outreach work to all major broadsheets in the country. So far, so bad: we’ve just completed a preliminary assessment of the think tanks we’ll be adding to the study population, and they are even worse than our old cohort. To the best of our knowledge, as of today, out of 27 leading UK thinks tanks, only one (IPPR) is transparent. On the far end of the spectrum, thirteen policy shops are highly opaque, while the remaining thirteen disappoint in a less dramatic fashion.



Star 3
StarStar 9
StarStarStar 4
StarStarStarStar 1
StarStarStarStarStar 0

Source: Results from last Transparify report (old cohort) plus preliminary rating of Aug 2015 (new additions)


True, some British institutions we rated last year have since told us that they are planning to put more funding information online this year, so Britain is gradually embracing the global trend towards greater think tank transparency. But the central puzzle remains: Why the low baseline? Britain is not a country where transparency or accountability are novel concepts, or where policy analysts live in fear of persecution by an authoritarian government. Think tanks have a long history on the islands, and are well-known and well-understood players in the polity. And the national media over the years have fielded plenty of acrimonious public debates about think tank funding, including accusations of stealth lobbying, highlighting the value of up-front transparency. Indeed, the very concept of think tank transparency ratings was first pioneered in the UK.

As I’m the advocacy manager for Transparify, I’m sorely tempted at this juncture to squeeze in my elevator speech about why financial transparency in policy research and advocacy is really, really important, but for once I’ll resist the temptation. If you still need convincing on this question, just check out the strong arguments in favour of transparency put forward by your peers from other countries.

Instead, I’d just like to throw the question out there for an honest wonk-to-wonk debate: Why are British think tanks so much less transparent than those in the U.S., Germany, Kenya or Georgia? Why don’t British think tanks just go ahead and disclose who funds them, with how much, and for what purposes?

Please share your thoughts in the comments thread below. Thank you!

Till Bruckner is an international development expert with a lively interest in transparency, accountability, and the hidden power relationships that structure global politics and our everyday lives. He works part-time as Advocacy Manager for Transparify, an initiative advocating greater research integrity worldwide. He is currently researching policy making processes and social change in West Africa. Till's blogs are written in a private capacity and should NOT be taken to reflect the views of Transparify or any other organization.

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8 comments on “Prize Question: Why do UK Think Tanks not Communicate Who Funds Them?
  1. Paul Colley says:

    I’m hoping the Th/ink Tank Rev/ew are going to respond to this. I’ve certainly drawn it to their attention. Good work.

  2. Joe says:

    Transparency Is a Red Herring

    Okay, so that’s probably a tad overstated. But I have to confess–in what may be a moment of WonkComms heresy–when I read Till’s post, my reaction was less outrage and more…meh.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think that transparency is a bad thing. It’s not! And I salute the work that Till and his colleagues at Transparify are doing. I totally agree with them that, all else equal, it’s much better to disclose your funding sources than not.

    But, look, the thing we’re really all concerned about is not transparency for its own sake. We’re concerned about preserving the integrity of our research, about disclosing any potential biases, about ensuring that we’re providing the right answer and not just the paid-for answer.

    I’m just not convinced that transparency actually accomplishes any of those things. Or, to borrow terminology from our colleagues on the research side, transparency is a trailing indicator of biases, not a predictor of them. In plainer English, funders donate to think tanks that are already producing work that is consistent with the funder’s worldview, not the other way around.

    In other words, it’s not the funding that shows that a think tank’s work is liberal or conservative, Labour or Tory, environmentalist or Drill Baby Drill. It’s the think tank’s work that shows those things. The money just follows along after.

    Focusing on funding transparency runs the (very, very) high risk of drawing the causal arrow in the wrong direction. All you’ve gotta do is peek across from the nice, safe, academic policy world over into the mudslinging world of politics to see that worry in action.

    My very first gig after leaving academia was writing political ads. That mostly meant spending several months writing variations on the theme:

    Other Team’s Candidate took $45,000 from Industry My Team Doesn’t Much Like, then voted to do Out Of Context Thing That Benefited Industry My Team Doesn’t Much Like.

    Add a stock photo and you’re done.

    My next gig after that one was writing for, an organization dedicated largely to debunking misleading political ads. I spent a whole lot of time there writing variations on a somewhat different theme:

    It’s true that Candidate took $45,000 from Industry, but what the ad doesn’t tell you is that that $45,000 was donated over 16 different campaigns, during which Candidate raised $80,000,000. Moreover, Candidate argued in favor of Thing That Benefited Industry well before her first campaign.

    Despite the best efforts of my colleagues at FactCheck, those “took money, then voted for X” ads continue unabated. And if you believe the think tank world is above this sort of lazy misunderstanding of the direction of causation, then I’d invite you to go have a chat with the comms team at the Brookings Institution, which was raked over the coals earlier this year over donations even though (a) no reasonable person anywhere questions that Brookings consistently produces some of the best policy research anywhere in the world, and (b) Brookings had a 4-star rating from Transparify.

    In the end, I worry that the light generated by transparency is a poor trade off when it comes at the cost of damaging reputations because a couple of reporters forgot how cause and effect works.

    • Till Bruckner says:

      Hi Joe,

      thank you very much for your thoughtful reply. This is exactly the kind of informed debate I hoped to spark.

      It’s interesting that you cite the Brookings controversy as an example. At the time, Transparify posted a blog arguing that the WaPo story on Brookings demonstrated why financial transparency was indeed important, and called on the media to take a nuanced approach to the subject. Excerpts:

      >>> At the same time, every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests. As Strobe Talbott, the president of Brookings, has publicly noted, there are “two imperatives that virtually every think tank must reconcile: protecting its independence while raising the funds to stay in business.” <<>> Hence, to paraphrase the Federalist Papers: even if all donors were angels, disclosure would still be sensible. For think tanks to maintain their intellectual integrity, it is essential that the media and other watchdogs engage in a constructive dialogue with institutions and ask them to publicly explain just how they defend their intellectual independence in the context of the ever-changing funding environment, if only to provoke critical reflection within think tanks. And in order for that dialogue to be based on objective facts, journalists need to be able to see who funds whom, and how funding trends are evolving over time. <<>> Transparify does not believe that when a think tank accepts funding, it is inevitably compromising itself and its staff members, and committing to produce policy advice favorable to that donor’s interest. Every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests. Most leading think tanks have nothing to hide regarding their relationships with funders. <<>> A think tank that is financially transparent is not afraid of disclosing who funds it because it is confident in the quality of its research, its intellectual independence and integrity. Financial transparency opens the door to accountability claims and is thus a powerful signalling device. At the same time, financial transparency alone does not make a think tank immune to conflicts of interest on the institutional or personal level. Think tanks are aware of this and most have put a variety of safeguards and firewalls in place to insulate their experts from external pressures. <<<

      One advantage of going 4-star or 5-star transparent is that it solves the problem you mentioned above, that of loss of context. I've done a bit of investigative journalism into foreign lobbying in the U.S., and if you see e.g. Azerbaijani money flowing into a think tank producing studies on the region that can raise red flags, but when you can easily check and see that they only donated $2,000 to an institution with a $20 million budget that financial link becomes a tiny footnote. In contrast, when the Embassy of Azerbaijan is only listed by name, without any indication of the amount it gave, or – far, far worse – is not listed at all and you then discover this "secret funding" link through digging of your own, this mysterious financial relationship frames the entire story and casts a sinister shade on everything else that institution has done.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. Let the debate continue…

  3. Till Bruckner says:

    Sorry, the link to the Transparify commentary on the WaPo article slamming Brookings somehow did not get posted. Here it is:

  4. Joe’s comment reminds me of one of those things on near the top of my ever growing to do list. A few thinktankers got together in Istanbul earlier this year to discuss the idea of launching a global call for transparency that took into account a number of principles:

    1) Ongoing
    2) Holistic
    3) Creative

    The point being that financial transparency was important but on its own was not enough -nor was it always a good idea if used on its own to assess a think tank’s transparency. If the point is to inform the public about a think tank’s motives and influences then this may very well happen with an open engagement on how the agenda is set or how funding is managed -even if the exact amounts are not disclosed.

  5. Till Bruckner says:

    Thanks Enrique. Here’s a good example of lapses in research integrity that think tank financial transparency ratings can NOT capture:

    The advantage of financial transparency ratings is that they are comparatively easy to do, objective, externally verifiable, and hard – if not impossible – to game.

    Of course, Transparify’s team has internally discussed also assessing or rating other aspects of research integrity. (For example, do they require their researchers to disclose outside interests, as Bruegel does?) So far, we haven’t gone down this road as we don’t want to complicate our simple rating system and drag think tanks into the land of box-ticking.

    But the topic keeps cropping up and we’re certainly open to new ideas…

  6. Hans Gutbrod says:

    as our bibliography amply demonstrates, this is a real issue. And rightly should be. There may be confusion between necessary and sufficient. Is transparency sufficient to achieve research integrity? Of course not. Is it necessary? Yes, absolutely.

    There are plenty of parallels. You would want to know whether your doctor stands to gain massively from prescribing one course of treatments, as opposed to a cheap alternative. It’s good to know that some think tanks receive massive amounts of money from tobacco company, and then argue against regulation. Every ciitzen should know that, every journalist should call attention when citing a researcher in that regard.

    Perhaps the most positive factor is that think tanks themselves have told us that they want this. “Our thinking has evolved on this issue”, is what we hear again and again. And that is good.

    So, by all means, let’s have a debate on what else is sensible to promote research integrity. But in a first step, let’s focus on what really needs to get done: that researchers become as diligent about citing their financial sources as they are about citing their academic sources.

    The only reason why we don’t call out rampant misbehaviour in this field more systematically is because we don’t have a word for taking money without declaring it. When you take ideas without declaring it we call it plagiarism, and you get fired. We should have a similar term for taking money and being intransparent.

  7. Till Bruckner says:

    Quick update: it looks as if at least nine UK think tanks will disclose more funding info during October, and three of them seem keen to implement 5-star disclosure. So we’re seeing a massive shift from the low baseline discussed in my original blog. I doubt the UK scene will attain US averages this year, but change does take time, and Transparify is in this for the long run.

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