It’s controversial among scholars how much influence think tanks have on policy-making. Some say they have great influence. On the other hand, others say it’s not too much. The reason there is no clear answer is that it’s impossible to measure how much influence they have. In other words, influence is intangible. This research paper takes the position that think tanks certainly have influence. However this paper doesn’t mention how much influence they have. This paper’s purpose is to demonstrate how think tanks achieve and use their influence. Finally, it’s fortunate that some significance will emerge through this works.




     It seems beneficial to define what a think tank is and its general purposes before coming to the explanation about influence. Actually, how you define a think tank is a controversial issue because there are a great many thinks tanks in the U.S., and they have several different features respectively. Nevertheless, a think tank is often defined like this: “University without Students”. However, this definition seems too wide and simple.

Some think tanks are affiliated with universities, while also governments run think tanks. The RAND Corporation, which is a think tank, insists it is independent, but the main client and sponsor of RAND is the U.S. government. Of course, financially independent think tanks also exsist. Most think tanks insist that they are independent and non-profit. These claims also include seeds of controversies.

First, even if a think tank doesn’t depend on a government’s assistance, it needs endowments by individuals and corporations. It may mean the think tanks are influenced by the donors. For example, a think tank may have to produce a policy which is preferred by donors. This problem is similar to the problem politicians have. Politicians have to secure support by constituents, so to win the election or to maintain his position are often more important than to develop the country. Similarly, it may be more of a concern for think tanks to maintain the institutions than to plan cultivated policies.  

Second, even if the think tank doesn’t measures its success by profit margins, it must want to achieve having influence for shaping public opinion and national policy. In addition, some experts working for think tanks are appointed to the government by the president. This is obviously benefits the person. The Brookings Institution and The Heritage Foundation, both are famous think tanks, gave out a report which shows most scholars of think tanks are favorable to the presidential appointments (Brookings 9).

Nevertheless, it’s conceivable to surmount these two problems in defining a think tank. First, every think tank has its own features: conservative, centrist, progressive, and a variety of funding sources. It means scholars can choose which think tank’s features correspond with his way of thinking. If he has a conservative view about a topic, it’s natural for him to belong to a conservative think tank. The fact that there are a great many think tanks demonstrates diversity of ideas. Whether or not biased ideas prevail in the nation doesn’t depend on the organization of think tanks so much. Rather, it more depends more on the media because they can select authors and broadcasters freely for their articles and news from think tanks which have different features. This may influence public opinion. In addition, it also depends on the incumbent government’s characteristic. If the government is conservative like the Bush Administration, it’s natural that conservative think tanks have power.          

     Second, it’s agreed that think tanks aim to shape public opinion and government policy. This fact, as such, isn’t an unhealthy element of think tanks. It is certainly the fact that the person who are appointed to a government can carry out what he or she was thinking in a think tank. This is a kind of benefit for the think tank because the possibility that the think tank’s opinions are adopted by the government will increase. Moreover, if someone working for a think tank is appointed to an executive position of an administration, the think tank’s publicity and reputation will spread. It means opportunities for that think tank’s opinions to be adopted by the media. That is, the benefits of the presidential appointment include shaping public opinion and government policy. Also, there may be a problem of increasing profits in terms of think tanks value because they claim that they are non-profit institutions. This point will be deliberated later because it is directly connected with the argument of influence.


 Influence of Think Tanks


      There is one important element necessary in order for think tanks to achieve influence. That is funding. Funding is a foundation for think tanks to achieve influence. They have to get human resources, or experts, and high quality research using their funds. One of the most important funding sources is corporate donors and individual contributors. For example, the Brookings Institution had around $40 million as operating revenue in 2002, and endowment accounted for 30% of all revenues (Brookings Annual). Revenues of the American Enterprise Institution, one of the most influential think tanks, totaled $23.6 million, and 35% came from individual donors in 2001 (AEI Annual). Thus, some noted think tanks have plentiful funds. This funding is one of reasons that noted think tanks are famous.

     If a think tank depends on government financially, the think tank is not free to suggest policies because it is restricted by the government. According to NIRA’s research, the majority of think tanks in North America are independent (Table1). This means most think tanks are free to suggest policies.


Table 1












There are two means for think tanks to achieve influence. The first is getting to work with government directly. Think tanks’ advice to a government is one method to influence the government. Also, some people from think tanks are appointed to the government as officers.  Think tank which sent personnel to a government can have influence. The second one is appealing to citizens. Think tanks try to shape public opinion by using media, publications, web sites, and workshops. It means that shaping public opinion influence a government indirectly.

     In fact it’s really difficult to judge if a government really adopts think tank’s advice because no one announces the fact. However, it’s a fact that think tanks give advice to government. For example, PNAC, which is a small think tank, publishes on its website its letters which were sent to a president (PNAC, July 1,03).

    There are contradictions against their influence,too. “ Presidents do not call to ask What  should we do in the Middle East? or How can we balance the budget? Cabinet officers or subcabinet officers also do not call- at least very often (1992:24)” (Stone 106). However, no one can deny that think tanks have opportunities to give advice to government. It’s a really important fact. Also, some of documents the Whitehouse published have been written by scholars who belong to think tanks. On September 12, 2002, the White house announced “A Decade of Defiance and Deception” whose author is Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on Middle East Issues who works for CSIS, a conservative think tank. It is said that he has advised the White house many times ( Yoshizaki 72).

Presidential appointments enable the think tank to have powerful connections with the government. It’s usual that a government dignitary is a think tank’s alumnus. For example, “Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice are both Hoover, which is a think tank, veterans. Dick Cheney has a longstanding relationship with the AEI. Elaine Chao, the labour secretary, is a Heritage alumnus. Also, Hundreds of lower-level administration employees cut their teeth in think tanks”(Economist). Hoover is strongly connected with government, so it’s natural that government dignities come from there. PNAC’s “Statement of Princples” on June 3, 1997 includes Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. They are all government dignities now (PNAC). As can be seen from a letter to Clinton on January 26, 1998, they had an opinion taking a tough line over Iraq. As Rumsfeld and other important persons of PNAC were appointed to executives of a government, they translated PNAC’s insistence into reality. This situation could be one of the reasons to prove a strong relation between think tanks and government and the influence of think tanks. In this point, it is certain that think tanks have influence on government.

     Finally, the problem that think tanks get benefits through presidential appointments should be solved. The important point is the fact that a president can appoint someone.  The president is elected by vote; citizens choose a president. It’s possible to think that the think tank and persons appointed by a president are supported by citizens implicitly. In addition,  it’s a really important point that this benefit doesn’t mean the purpose of think tanks is to get money. In these points, the justice of think tanks doesn’t decrease. 

Think tanks get to work not only with government but also citizens to shape public opinion. The media often refers to think tanks for references. In 2001, the number of media citations from think tanks was 25,823 (Table4). In this connection, media citation in 1996 was 14,212 (Table2). It doesn’t mean that if this number is large or not, the influence on public opinion is actually strong or not. It shows that opportunities think tanks could have to shape public opinion has been certainly increasing. Also, the reason influence is rising, Abelson says, “As the number of think tanks in the United States and throughout the international community continue to grow, there will be a tendency to infer that their influence is on the rise”(Abelson, Nov 2002).

The media have been an important element in the cycle of shaping public opinion because they can decide which think tanks they refer to. In fact, media citations of conservative or right wing think tanks account for around 50% every year (Table2,3,4). This tendency seems to reflect a series of conservative politics of the U.S.  Think tanks could achieve influence on public opinion by the medium of media. Which information the media pick up is really an important factor for the public. If a sequence of information from the media is biased, opportunities for receivers to know other ideas will decrease. That is, we can’t mention about the influence of think tanks on citizen without the role of media. Think tanks have to get along with media to achieve influence on public opinion.


Table: Media Citations: Spectrum of Major U.S. Think Tanks

Table 2

Think Tank Ideology

Media Citations 1995

Media Citations 1996

Media Citations 1997

U.S. Conservative or right-leaning

7792 (51 %)

7706 (54 %)

7733 (53 %)

U.S. Centrist

6361 (42 %)

4392 (30 %)

4623 (32 %)

U.S. Progressive or left-leaning

1152 (7 %)

2177 (15 %)

2267 (16 %)















Table 3

Number of Media Citations

Number of Media Citations



Conservative or Right-Leaning

11,107    50%

8,940    52%


6,634    30%

5,795    34%

Progressive or Left-Leaning

4,471    20%

2,493    14%


22,212    100%

17,228    100%

Table 4

Think Tank Spectrum, 2001

Number of Media Citations



Conservative or Right-Leaning

12,390 (48%)

3,526 (40%)


9,319 (36%)

4,355 (49%)

Progressive or Left-Leaning

4,114 (16%)

928 (11%)


25,823 (100%)

8,809 (100%)


The way think tanks achieve influence is not only through media. They can express their ideas and give information using websites. In fact, a lot of think tanks have websites, and anyone can get access to the websites easily now. Sometimes they also hold workshops. Moreover, they publish many books and magazines. In addition, educational and training programs aimed at the influencers and future influences of public opinion lead to the acceptance of think tanks respective social, economical and political ideas. Thus, think tanks have many channels to acquire influence on public opinion.

Influence on government and public opinion are ultimately the same because the U.S. is a democracy. Think tanks want a government that is reflected by its positions. The government or president is elected by voting. In the process, think tanks have an opportunity to appeal its own ideas to citizens or constituents. That is, shaping public opinion is connected with influence on government.



     This research paper has shown that think tanks certainly influence policy decisions using many methods: advice, appointment, media, publication, website, and education. They are significant in this point because they contribute to the diversification of decided policies. The policy that is influenced by a think tank is better than a policy that is decided without a think tank. Government officials and politicians seem to be in many bonds: power games, consolidating their own position, winning elections. On the other hand, think tanks basically don’t have bonds because most think tanks are independence and non-profit. Their thought from the independent viewpoint must be useful for the government. Also, people working for think tanks are experts in their fields. This fact increases their value. As long as they abide by their promise of independence and non-profit, it’s possible that think tanks provoke a government to a better way. Increasing the actors which influence policies means expanding the spread of choices for policymakers.



Works Cited

1. Abelson, Donald “Think tanks and U.S. foreign policy: an historical view” Electronic Journal of U.S. Department of states  Nov 2002 No.3

2. Krugman,Paul “In the think tanks?” New York Times 13 Dec 2000

3. Stone,Dlane Carturing the political imagination, Think tanks and the process Frank Cass&CO.LTD 1996

4. Yoshizaki,Tatsuhiko  The logic of the U.S. Shinshou Sinsho 2003


5. AEI Annual Report,pageID.53/default.asp

6. Brookings Annual Report


7. Lexington “United states: The change of think tanks” The Economist 15 Feb 2003 Vol 366

The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation “Posts of honor: How American’s corporate and civic leaders view presidential appointments” 10 Jun 2001


 8. PNAC(Project for the New American Century), Letters and Statements