In an angry, tech-savvy world, where do think tanks fit in?

As pockets of discontent flourish around the world and information is shared at a rapid pace, what is the role of think tanks today? OpenCanada’s Catherine Tsalikis reports from the Global Think Tank Summit in Montreal.

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September 30, 2016
People hold banners during a demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union, in central London, Britain July 2, 2016. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

James McGann, co-convener of the third Global Think Tank Summit, held this week in Montréal, doesn’t mince words when it comes to how he sees the state of the world. 

“I tend to be Dr. Doom,” he chuckles this week in an interview. He’s thinking about what is increasingly being referred to as ‘angry populism’ – the discontent and frustration of citizens around the globe, which most obviously manifested itself in June’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the high polling numbers of Donald Trump in the United States.

“Why are there 14 million people [the number of primary votes Trump boasts] who are, as I describe in terms of the movie Network, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?” McGann asks.

Along with Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, which McGann runs, brought together representatives of 85 think tanks from 42 countries to address this question and others over three days this week. 

McGann believes there is a crucial role for research organizations big and small, independent and government-affiliated, to play: “It is incumbent upon think tanks to understand and to not run from these challenges, and understand why the citizens of their countries are so angry and dissatisfied.”

But think tanks, McGann freely admits, are having an existential crisis. Advances in technology and globalization have “democratized the access to and dissemination of ideas and information,” he says. Funding is often an issue, as organizations struggle to stay independent. In other words, it’s harder than ever for researchers and fellows to engage policymakers and – more importantly, many at the conference say – the public.

The goal of this year’s summit, then, is twofold: to discuss what role think tanks should play in understanding what McGann calls the “dark forces” responsible for the malaise plaguing populations around the world, and to figure out how best to circulate policy ideas in an ever-crowded information space. 

A question of identity

Andrew Selee knows a thing or two about think tanks, having worked at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. for 16 years, currently as executive vice president. Think tanks, he says, “are a sub-species of organization in search of an identity. What are we? I mean, look at the groups that are here [at the summit] – some are university centres, some are stand-alone organizations, some are pieces of a business, arms of non-profits, arms of government…”

Historically, he explains, policy was left to ‘elite’ groups of people with knowledge of a particular subject. Now, in the internet age, “the conversations about policy are much bigger, and the general public gets involved. Part of the anger we’re seeing is from people outside of those usual, elite circles, saying that they want to be a part of the conversation. And they may or may not have the same ideas as the policy elites.”

"What’s framing people’s ideas are often soundbites…How do you give people more substance?"

The question for think tanks, then, is whether and how to engage with the public – the “often millions of people” who care about the public policy issues that will affect their lives.

“I don’t think think tanks will be the catalysts to change some of the angry conversations,” says Selee. “The only thing we can do is what we often tried to do in the past with policymakers, [which is ask]: how do you make sure people at least have reasoned elements of analysis, the right tools to frame the way they think about the world?

“Right now, what’s framing people’s ideas are often soundbites, activist websites, brief bits in the media…how do you give people more substance? And you have to believe that people actually want substance. You have to believe in democracy, that average people are capable of assimilating well done, concise but also substantive pieces of information.”

Bridging the communications gap

Participants at this week’s summit appear to be united on one thing: that the traditional, long-form PDF as a method of conveying ideas is not long for this life. In the age of information overload, how do think tanks share research that is often complex and confusing with the public?

Selee and his colleagues at the Wilson Center have studied the importance of Canada and Mexico from an American perspective. They soon realized that what started as an elite conversation needed to be taken outside of the Beltway.

“We spend a lot of time on the road,” Selee says, “talking to people in other cities and using social media, reports that are easily accessible, a lot of graphics…you don’t get away from the PDF that specialists read, but you repurpose it into fun talks with anecdotes, you write op-eds in local newspapers, you do graphics, you do 140-character tweets, try to hook it onto other things that are happening.”

Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow with Britain’s Chatham House and a visiting fellow at the Centre d'études et de recherches internationales de l'Université de Montréal, says when it comes to getting a specific idea across to a specific audience, whether that be government officials or members of the public, it’s all about the language.

“One of the things I looked at was how Hurricane Katrina had political and economic implications,” Paskal recalls. “Now you could say, it’s climate change, and then a whole bunch of doors get shut in your face. You could say, it’s environmental issues, and then a bunch of different doors get shut in your face. But if you say geophysical change – which is a word that nobody really knows – you’re not carrying the baggage. So you can actually get to the point where you have the discussion about these issues, which they want to have, but they don’t want to have to capture all the baggage from the other words,” she says.  “I’d much prefer to understand everybody else’s operating environment, everybody else’s language, and make it easier for them to understand what I’m trying to say.” 

For smaller think tanks outside of Washington and London, with less resources and less access to government officials, improving the art of communication is even more crucial. 

"To continue to be innovative it can’t be a bunch of white men, and it has to be globally diverse.”

Neelam Deo, the director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations in Mumbai, says her team uses “every means of dissemination – the long-form research, the 800-word op-ed, we send out a weekly briefing, we use Twitter, Facebook, and we now have somebody advising us on how to make more and better more effective use of the social media.”

“Almost every adult has a cellphone,” Deo continues, “and so for us, audio has become in some ways a more important medium. I do a lot of podcasts myself – because I’ve been in Philadelphia, I’m doing a weekly podcast on the American election, on various issues and what they mean for India.”

Innovate or bust

While a large part of this week’s summit is focusing on how think tanks can respond to ‘angry populism’ and reach out beyond their traditional audiences, there are still a few voices who think their institutions should embrace their ‘elite’ status, concentrating their resources on reaching government officials or particular sectors, like military and defence.

Canada’s foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, comes down on the side of inclusion. A former centre fielder for the 1990-91 edition of the Brookings Institution’s softball team, Dion told an audience of summit attendees Wednesday night that “too often prejudices and falsehoods prevail…It is in this space that the best think tanks can and must play a critical role. The aim is nothing less than the triumph of these simple truths: Inclusion does work.”

Overall, McGann, the co-convener, hopes the discussion spurred by the summit will inspire new ways of transmitting ideas and reaching people outside intellectual bubbles, while making the most of (often dwindling) resources to produce quality work.

To continue to be innovative it can’t be a bunch of white men, and it has to be globally diverse because the issues are global,” he says. “Every place thinks that their problems are unique but…they’re not alone struggling with these issues, and they should struggle together to figure out how to meet challenges.”