Many think tanks in Washington, D.C., where policy-minded scholars supported by large endowments once quietly sought solutions to the nation's problems, increasingly are pursuing partisan agendas funded by undisclosed corporations and wealthy individuals, the reports.
Think tanks — the phrase was coined during World War II to describe secure facilities where the military plotted its strategies — have long straddled the spheres of academia and government, serving as perches from which scholars and policy experts "who didn't want to teach" instead provided objective analyses on a range of issues. These days, however, they are increasingly partisan and, in many cases, focused on a single issue or area of policy. As a result, it has become difficult to distinguish between policy shops that offer truly objective advice and those engaged in high-priced partisan advocacy efforts.
Indeed, a growing number of thinks tanks, on both the left and right of the ideological spectrum, have established separate operations dedicated to advocacy work. One of the biggest and best funded, the , which was founded in 1973 by a trio of wealthy conservatives, is organizing a nine-city "Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour" through its lobbying arm, , which reported $5 million in revenue in 2011. Similarly, the more liberal , which was established by former Clinton administration officials and has about $34 million in annual revenues, created the to lobby Congress directly — something it has done to the tune of roughly $3.5 million since 2004.
The trend has some researchers worried that trust in these institutions is being eroded, the Globe reports. "They have evolved into what looks like a business. A brain trust for sale," said Alan Dye, a Washington attorney who has represented think tanks, including Heritage, for three decades.
Meanwhile, think tanks that have tried to buck the trend have learned that nonpartisanship comes at a cost. One such shop, the , which was created in 2007 by former leaders of both parties to combat the growing partisanship in Washington, eventually established its own lobbying arm, the , which has since spent nearly $10 million on direct lobbying activities.
All of this has damaged, in the eyes of many, the perception of think tanks as independent purveyors of knowledge and analysis. "The notion of policy objectivity is eroding," said Steve Clemons, co-founder and senior fellow of the , a left-leaning think tank established in 1999. Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of defense and state who helped establish the liberal , puts it more bluntly, noting that at some think tanks the definition of "objective analysis" today means: "This is your objective. Now go do the analysis."