eli5: what does a ‘think tank’ do?

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Think tanks are companies that produce ideas. They employ, depending on their industry of focus some or all of the following: experts with industry experience, scientists, researchers, data analysts, consultants, marketers, writers, and PR people. Some exist to do genuine research and advance the intellectual state of their industry in good faith, for the greater good. Others are “legitimizers for hire”, cherrypicking facts and data to back up an existing claim or agenda.


A think tank is usually an organization using different scientists, researchers and analysts to provide analysis, recommendations and research papers for specific topics, often on a strategic, long-term level. Often think tanks specialize on a certain topic (military, economy, foreign politics for example), and in some cases have a clear political colour. SYL


originally they were a way to connect high level technical expertise with government. They attempt to identify and solve problems for government as a separate 3rd party. The first think tank was the Rand Corporation, itself the offspringof the US military’s Research ANd Development department, under which the Manhattan project was carried out. The Rand corporation worked on the theoretical side of nuclear weapons and the cold war, and is the origin of the term game theory among other things. While initially not intended to be partisan, they’ve increasingly become ways to theorize and formalize potential policy under the guise of academia. Effectively many of them are the other side of lobby culture now


The main political think tanks in D.C. operate like sitting governments. A particular ideological faction will employ people who filter in and out of the different branches of the US government and they will conduct, or pay, for political science research, write policy papers, and draft legislation. When a new president with shared ideology gets elected, they will pick cabinet executives and management from those think tanks and they will then start the process of trying to pass legislation that was developed in the think tank, or use their papers to develop executive action. Following what think tanks are doing is what political insiders inside the beltway do every day because they have a huge influence on future legislation and they keep people from the operational management levels of the executive branch in the loop so they can hit the ground running when a transition happens. The same goes from the transition from one Cabinet level official to the next inside the same presidential administration.


They’re private bodies that conduct research into (existing or proposed) government policies and then work to disseminate the results to the public, the media and the government. They almost always have some specific political goal in mind, which can be something noble like “reduce CO2 emissions” or “improve cancer treatment”, or something selfish like “increase the profits of the tobacco industry” or “get the Evil Bastards Party elected”. Often they aren’t very honest about their goals. They tend to get their funding from some combination of rich people, businesses, charities, political parties and governments. Some of them actually hire respected academics and do serious research, while others just do the bare minimum to make it seem like there is scientific support for their preferred policies.