Think Tanks and their Corporate Funders: Who’s Selling What?

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Think-tanks

Brains / Neil Conway

August 7, 2016; New York Times

A devastating article last weekend by Eric Lipton and Brooke Williams, part of a series running in the New York Times, last weekend raised big questions about the independence of the think tanks that specifically trade on that independence, issuing research reports and generally acting as research based-arbiters of a wide variety of issues in the media and the highest levels of government. Perhaps think tanks have gone for the same short-term-return-above-all-else strategy that has caused such havoc in our general economy, a strategy inadvertently aimed at destroying what is most valued in the organization.

The behavior of think tanks vis-à-vis the issues that their corporate funders are invested in has been raised repeatedly by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who has termed the practice “thinly disguised lobbying.” NPQ has covered a number of reports about their funding in general, by foreign governments, and the corporate funding of right-wing think tanks on issues like education.

“This is about giant corporations,” Warren said, “who figured out that by spending, hey, a few tens of millions of dollars, if they can influence outcomes here in Washington, they can make billions of dollars.”

Indeed, a group of state attorneys general is investigating whether ExxonMobil worked with think tanks to produce reports that would obscure the impact of fossil fuels on climate change.

Are these institutions that function with government subsidies so they might act in the best interests of the public guarding their ability to do so, or are their business models carelessly but specifically courting a lack of integrity and credibility?

The annual budget of the Brookings Institution has doubled in the past decade to $100,000,000, so whatever it is doing seems to be working financially—at least in the short term. But stories like the one below may begin to erode its necessary reputational capital.

Brookings is featured front-and-center in the Times for its close “strategic partnership” with Lennar Corporation, one of the largest homebuilders in the United States and now central to a controversial $8 billion redevelopment plan in San Francisco. (Before we go any further, we want to provide a link to a very brief refutation made by Brookings yesterday in response to the article.) Brookings received $400,000 from various divisions of the corporation and Brookings began an aggressive promotion of San Francisco project, offering among other things to “engage with national media to develop stories that highlight Lennar’s innovative approach.” It also named Lennar Executive Kofi Bonner as a senior fellow at Brookings. Bonner is in charge of the San Francisco project. An internal Brookings memo suggested he would be a “trusted adviser” even as a $100,000 donation was being solicited from Lennar.

The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed documentation indicating that other corporations like K.K.R., Hitachi, and JPMorgan Chase (which donated more than $15.5 million to the nonprofit— for which they received, among other things, a lot of profile nurturing) were often promised that Brookings would provide “donation benefits” like events on the topics of interest that would mix donating corporate executives with government officials, presumably helping to brand the corporation as a credible policy player.

The article concedes that much of Brookings’ work appears unconnected, at least on the surface, to corporate interests. Still, as Bill Goodfellow, the executive director of the Center for International Policy, another think tank, said, “People think of think tanks as do-gooders, uncompromised and not bought like others in the political class.  But it’s absurd to suggest that donors don’t have influence. The danger is we in the think tank world are being corrupted in the same way as the political world. And all of us should be worried about it.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • vlswallin

    I worry that the three very young people that authored the article do not understand the implications of discrediting Brookings and the like. They should always focus on specific issues at hand, not the whole institution. The same goes for any kind of conflict, even in marriage. Talk about the idea, not the individual (in this case, Brookings).