What Really Goes on All Day at a Think Tank?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 7 2012 6:46 PM

Life in the Tank

What really happens inside all those think tanks?

The Cato Institute.
What happens behind the doors of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.?

Photograph by Matthew G. Bisanz.

Charles and David Koch staged an attempt to take over leadership of the Cato Institute, the prominent libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., last week by claiming a majority of seats on its governing body. What do people who work at think tanks do all day, aside from thinking?

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Lots of reading and writing, with occasional breaks for coffee. Think tank employees pore over studies, articles, and history books and issue policy briefs and reports on a bevy of topics. In global-oriented institutes such as AEI, scholars focuses on specific hotspots like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Think tank workers must cultivate an extensive network of connections, so coffees, lunches, and meetings also eat up a large part of a scholar’s day. There are also plenty of TV appearances and phone interviews. Like college professors, think tank scholars are always traveling to conferences and joining in panels.

Life at a think tank tends to be stratified: There are the scholars, and then there’s everybody else. The former are treated very well, because they purvey the ideas and analysis that fuel the think tank’s operations. At the Carnegie Endowment, scholars get to stretch out in large offices. Senior fellows at Cato are paid salaries of about $160,000. Most think tank members get plenty of help from their own research assistants and administrative aides.

Advertisement

The phrase think tank originates to World War II and its aftermath, when it described organizations such as the RAND Corp. that gave the government military advice.* In American Army slang, it also referred to the smoke-and-idea-filled rooms in which officials crafted their war strategy. During the 1950s, the civilian sector adopted the term for the nonprofit research-and-advocacy groups that sprang up. (Previously, such institutions were known as “brain boxes.”) The earliest think tanks were classical research institutions that convened the country’s brightest minds to solve the political and social problems of the day. Billionaire Andrew Carnegie created the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1914 to fund a coterie of intellectuals who he hoped would avert the coming war. Two years later, the Brookings Institution appeared as a private research organization dedicated to the “scientific” study of public policy issues. From 1924 to 1927, Brookings also encompassed a degree-granting graduate school. The professors lasted; the students didn’t.

A second wave of think tank creation really picked up starting in the 1970s. Nongovernment advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce proliferated in Washington, generating a lobbying arms race between liberals and conservatives that created a demand for research companies to compile data and make policy recommendations quickly. The new breed of think tank—the Heritage Foundation is one example—has moved away from pure academia and toward social and political advocacy.

The product of think tanks—policy papers—end up all over the place, but mostly in Washington, D.C. Some institutes pipe their reports directly to senators’ offices or Cabinet-level departments; others focus on nongovernmental sectors. A recent report by PolicyLink on access to healthy foods was distributed among grocers and food retailers.

Think tank scholars don’t necessarily have to be academic all-stars. It’s much more important that they be good writers and persuasive speakers who can analyze others’ research. Having lots of different interests and being nimble with statistics helps, too.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Walter Olson of the Cato Institute, Judith Bell of PolicyLink, and Matthew Rojansky of the Carnegie Endowment.

Correction, March 8, 2012: This article originally stated that the RAND Corp. and the label think tanks originate to World War II. RAND was created in 1946, the year after the end of the war. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Head of Security Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would A Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms Off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 1:38 PM Why Is Fall Red in America but Yellow in Europe? A possible explanation, 35 million years in the making.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.