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Thinking About ThinkTanks: A Critical Skill for Researchers

Thinking About ThinkTanks

What is a think tank?

A think tank is an organization that conducts research addressing issues of importance to society. When we think of "think tanks," we think of independent, unbiased esearchers that work to bridge the conversation gap between the government policymakers and the public interest. In theory, think tanks

  • work on behalf of the public,
  • employ recognized independent scholars, 
  • sponsor rigorous, evidence-based research,
  • produce new knowledge through analysis,
  • publish research for policymakers and public.

In practice, think tanks

  • often employ "like-minded" experts,
  • support donors/sponsor interests, 
  • target specific audiences with information.

Tools for Researchers

Think Tank and Civil Societies Program (University of Pennsylvania) published a Think Tank Index and is currently developing "global and, comprensive" Think Tank Directory. Includes research on the role of think tanks in society, as well as the Global Go To Think Tanks Report, which looks at think tank trends and issues, and ranks think tanks in a variety of areas (by region, by research interest, by achievement, etc.).

Think Tank Search (Harvard Kennedy School) uses a customized Google search engine to mine information from over 600 think tanks online. Includes a think tank directory. Both a directory of U.S. and international think tanks, as well as a custom Google search of more than 250 think tank websites.

Worldwide NGO Directory (World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations)

Special Interest Groups Listing (Votesmart)

Global Think Tank Watch
Searchable database of policy research and analysis. (Here are the think tanks and research institutes included in the GTT Watch database.)

Source Watch 
This Wiki, published by the Center for Media and Demogracy), reviews sponsorship and potential partisan biases influencing think tanks and other information source providers.

Policy Archive
"A comprehensive digital library of public policy research" sorted by topic and searchable in a variety of way.

Take Note

(click to enlarge)

Think Tanks by Topic

Think tanks identify their mission as academic research.  Organizational names often include

  • authoritative words like "research center" "foundation" and "institute."
  • the names of well-known and respected individuals in society.

These naming tactics make it easy for the reader to assume that what they are reading is factual.  Be careful.  Many think tanks, including those that are well known and respected, reinforce the political and social biases of their founders, sponsors, and scientists.  

Below, you'll find a sampling of the over 600 think tanks currently in operation in the United States, identified by their political leanings. 


American Immigration Law Foundation This group supports amnesty for illegal aliens, on whose behalf it litigates against

Applied Research Center Viewing the United States as a nation where “structural racism” is deeply “embedded in the fabric of society,” ARC seeks to "build a fair and equal society" by demanding “concrete change from our most powerful institutions."

The Brookings Institution
Covers a wide range of issues. Look under "Publications".

Center for American Progress
(Liberal Think Tank)
Liberal/progressive organization headed by President Clinton's ex-Chief of Staff, John Podesta and Washington perennial, Morton Halperin. Fellows include Eric Alterman and Matt Miller. The CPA covers a variety of issues.

Center for Economic and Policy Research
Progressive free trade from people who at least seem to do their homework. The Center's talent is their frequent debunking of misleading and manipulated statistical information.

Economic Policy Institute(Liberal Think Tank)
Sustained critique of conservative economic assumptions. Backed by labor unions. This organization believes that “government must play an active role in protecting the economically vulnerable, ensuring equal opportunity, and improving the well-being of all Americans.”

Institute for Research on Poverty (UW Madison!)
Statistics, definitions, causes and effects.



The Annenberg Public Policy Center (Non-Partisan Think Tank)
Concerned with the media and the press, and their influence in society and politics.

The Aspen Institute (Centrist Think Tank)
Covers a wide range of issues. Follow the links from "Policy Programs" for documents. This organization promotes radical environmentalism and views America as a nation plagued by deep-seated “structural racism.”

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Non-Partisan Think Tank)
Analyses of international issues of significance to American foreign policy.

Council on Foreign Relations: The Immigration Debate (Non-Partisan)
Pre-eminent resource for all sides of policy and opinion on foreign affairs.


Kaiser Family Foundation (Non-Partisan Think Tank) Research on health, labor, welfare, education and nutrition.

PEW Research Center (Non-Partisan Think Tank) No matter our politics, we cannot escape our beliefs. This site examines the meaning of that idea.

The RAND Corporation (Centrist Think Tank) Addresses issues related to low-income and minority Americans.


Ayn Rand Institute (Libertarian Think Tank)
Materialism, Capitalism, Individualism.

Cato Institute (Libertarian Think Tank)
Influential Libertarian advocate of free markets, limited government and individual rights.



The American Enterprise Institute
Influential mainstream conservative organization.

Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
Much, on the whole reasonable, often intelligent, not infrequently amusing, conservative opinion.

Center for Immigration Studies (Conservative "Independent" Think Tank)

Foreign Policy Research Institute
sophisticated Regan redux generally critical of neo-conservatism.

The Heritage Foundation  (Conservative Think Tank) Influential, mainstream conservatism: anti-regulatory, anti-tax, traditional values.

The Hoover Institution
Moderately conservative advocate of free enterprise and small government. Look under "Publications" for the HooverDigestand Policy Review. Uncommon Knowledge is also very good, and the H is fairly generous is giving access to its books in BooksOnline.

The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
The Institute, associated with Rice University, conducts research and programs in many areas, the majority of which have to do with foreign policy and economics. Its research bias is conservative, though its papers (under "Publications") offer views not always associated with conservatism.

Family Research Council (Right)
Defending, as they say, "family, faith and freedom", the FRC addresses a host of subjects including marriage and family, bioethics, abortion, religion, culture, economics and taxes

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