During his address at the 42nd Foundation Day function of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), the Vice President of India, Mr M Hamid Ansari stressed the need for structured thinking. “Governments busy with the concerns of the moment sometimes do not have the time and the energy to devote themselves in sufficient measure to matters in the domain of the possible, the probable and even the improbable,” he added. He exhorted the strategic community to respond to security imperatives and energise the policy impulse.
Think tanks provide an ideal vehicle to the strategic community to study future uncertainties and develop well-articulated policy options through research and analysis of multi-dimensional variables. They help bridge the gap between insightful knowledge and well-informed policy making. Although India has 122 think tanks, most of them are of indifferent standard. According to a global survey carried out by the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute in 2007, India was fifth in the list of countries having the maximum number of think tanks. Quite expectedly, the United States headed the list with 1776.
Although India has 122 think tanks, most of them are of indifferent standard. According to a global survey carried out by the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute in 2007, India was fifth in the list of countries having the maximum number of think tanks. Quite expectedly, the United States headed the list with 1776.
The origin of the term think tank can be traced back to the World War II and was initially applied to war planning deliberations. Some used the phrase brain boxes as well. However, by the end of 1950s the term think tank had come to be accepted universally and gradually transcended to other disciplines as well. RAND Corporation, founded in 1946 to offer advice to the US military is considered by many to be the first modern think tank. It developed systems analysis, whose objective was “to provide information to military decision-makers that would sharpen their judgment and provide the basis for more informed choices.”
As seen above, the role of think tanks was limited to military advice initially. As all militaries have to contend with indefinite and unpredictable environment, think tanks help immensely by developing tools for decision making. Their contribution to game theory, dynamic programming, mathematical modelling, simulation, network theory and cost analysis is well documented. During the last thirty years, with expansion of their field of activity, their number has increased exponentially. They number over 5,000 today.
In the United States, all major issues are researched, analysed and debated in public domain by different think tanks to generate multiple interpretations, viewpoints and alternative courses of action. Both privately funded and the government owned think tanks contribute by active participation. The government encourages such open discussions and takes due cognisance of opinions expressed while formulating policies. Britain boasts of some of the finest think tanks which influence government policies. Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), founded in 1831 to study naval and military science has widened its area of study to include insurgency, terrorism and other unconventional threats. Even the People’s Republic of China has realised the importance of think tanks. Although owned by the government, they are granted sufficient autonomy to debate issues freely. Maximum proliferation of think tanks in the recent times has been seen in the erstwhile Soviet Union countries.
Although it is difficult to define think tanks in precise terms, they are all structured as permanent bodies, funded by government or private supporters. Some of the essential attributes that a conventional think tank should possess are as follows:-
- Independent and Non-partisan Approach
Think tanks should subscribe to no ideology and produce honest and objective research papers. They should not permit themselves to be used as propaganda tool or as lobbying groups of funding entities. Some think tanks are aligned with different ideologies or view points and tend to support them through their studies. They are treated as mouth-pieces of interested parties. There are many advocacy organisations (under the façade of think tanks) that are ready to produce tailor-made studies for a cost. Such institutions lose their credibility and contribute little to objective debate of issues involved. Therefore, it is essential that outside funding should be such that it does not impinge on the independence and integrity of research institutions.
The US-based Centre for Defense Information (CDI) is totally financed by voluntary tax-deductible contributions from individuals and grants from foundations. It declines funds from the military and the military contractors to remain as “the nation’s foremost independent military research organisation.” Similarly, in order to maintain its independence, the Cato Institute accepts no government funding. It receives approximately 75 per cent of its funding from individuals, with lesser amounts coming from foundations, corporations and the sale of publications.