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Ask HN: How do think tanks make money?
45 points by mbesto on Feb 11, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

I worked in that space for seven years. To put it plainly, we were paid to create ideas by entities and individuals who wanted a certain frame or perspective to emerge or persist in the wild.

i understand generally what you're talking about, but could you elaborate or provide an example? i've always been kind of curious, myself

CEO selects appropriate thinktank, says, "I run an oil and gas company. I need you to produce articles that are critical of global warming. Here's one million dollars."

Thinktank goes and hires a couple of global warming "skeptics" for $50K/year. They produce writings and speakings, which the thinktank personnel shop around to appropriate outlets for minimal fees. Op-Eds are distributed to newspapers. Pre-edited 5-minute segments are distributed to TV news programs. The media outlets are happy to receive ready-to-publish content for cheap.

You the viewer receive all this information against global warming from a "neutral, non-partisan" thinktank. You are likely to believe it. The name of the CEO's oil and gas corporation is never mentioned.

Money laundering is taking money from illegal sources and turning it into clean, usable money. Thinktanks are engaged in the practice of idea laundering.

Harsh. But not wholly inaccurate. I think it really depends on who you work for. There are some think tanks that do policy and some that do politics. Policy is about the analytical development of rules and procedures. Politics is exactly what Jellicle described.

1. Harsh, but that is the most accurate description I've seen.

2. This is mostly how Gartner, Forrester, et. al. work.

Aren't these just PR firms then?

Think tanks: are they just PR firms? This person with important title from important-sounding organization says yes. Critics like this other guy say no. The more important person says the critics are wrong. The only thing that is certain is that the debate about whether think tanks are just PR firms continues.

Tom Logan from the Institute For Studies says that Think Tanks are an "Invaluable source of impartial opinion that help reflect the thoughts, movements and science that drives the world." Ribena de-Farquhar-Toss from the Policy Research (PR) Think Tank disagrees, suggesting that Think Tanks form "part of the process by which corporations and governments brain wash us into spending money we haven't earned on shit we don't need."

It's pronounced 'think tank.'

I prefer advocacy organization or research outfit. Think tank implies inaction. If you live in the western world moving policy is literally like moving mountains the higher the scale or wealthier the opposition. "Action Tank" anyone?

I have always referred to them as "Spin Factories", they provide the content that are used in PR and media to spin issues in a manner that is favorable to the sponsor(s).

Sure. Take for example clean energy (NOTE: I policy wonk'd in this area). There are some folks who want to 'disrupt' the field with technology. Some support this (most consumers should) and some don't (the more vertically integrated legacy suppliers). My job was to determine talking points to get attention from the powers that be in key parts of government (DoD, WH, States) and communicate a value proposition in support of the disruptive technology elements. Without calling them disruptive-we needed to learn what they valued. So my job was to use geospatial, market data, academic and legal to support policy recommendations. Then get people to hop on board. Clear(er)?

Where does one hire people like that?

Law schools. But I guess it depends on what you are trying to accomplish?

Can I contact you directly?

sure. Sorry for the delay.

I would love to hear something about:

- how much you can make working for a think tank

- what kind of skills you need, specifically. for example, if you're doing research, i suppose PhD credential would be necessary

- what made you decide to leave the industry

- How much: Industry specific and tenure. I would say the expected start salary undergrad in one of the major cities is 38-42, master's level candidate start in the 50s and with tenure you tap out in mid six-figures. Or you go work for the government, lobby shop (don't) or for an elected official. You can head to the undying lands and teach. Lots of flexibility, but very hard to pin down what exactly it is 'you do.'

- Skills: PhDs are not required-you will find more JDs in the fold than one might expect. These shops are often very small and run by older guard and don't have access to HN-audiences, so they are not technically advanced or pay exorbitant rates for graphic design and web presence (arbitrage alert). But what they are good at is proposing ways to change rules. Politicians, rarely, rarely, write laws-this community does. Politicians pull language from us and write bills. Then there office turns those bills into legal language.

So the skills you would need to support those outcomes at any level IMO: Statistics, hitting the phones and a business development acumen. You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you can't move people to do something (hint: statistics is not 'it') you will be like those people who build the perfect product that no one buys. There needs to be an MVP for policy. Too many perfect bills, too few changes in our lives.

-Why I left: I have a very impatient mind. Well sort of impatient-I did work in the field for seven years. I realized that the field adapts to politiking in ways I was uncomfortable with and without a lot of what we would call 'validation.' Ideas would be dropped wholesale given regime change or funding-which was not connected to reality. I worked at an org that was 'policy effective' they knew how to resist such changes (i.e. funding) and hired smart people. But I realize I was the only talking about rapid iteration, validation and business development-which got me strange looks. I've always loved coding, and wanted to start a social enterprise-so I walked out and am doing just that.

If I were giving tips to me in my twenties I would say:

Steer clear of small shops that don't want to support projects in the field. If they think small does not equal nimble (i.e. they just want to put out reports or convene meetings), its not worth your time. In fact if someone tells you they want to convene a meeting-always follow up with...then what? If its another meeting...head for the hills. Meetings are important but if all they do is create additional meetings-you know you are dealing with the old guard and change will be slow.

Think tanks are all wishing to become, at least in part, communications firms. Too many organization's chasing too few minutes in the day to influence you-message inflation. If your organization begins to show signs of leaping into the bubble, leave.

Work on policy that can be practised. Some might think that means work at a large scale. Wrong. Find a shop willing to test its ideas in the wild-you will not regret this policy entrepreneurship experience.


I was part of getting something similar off the ground the other year (Web Ecology Project, www.webecologyproject.org).

From what I've seen a Think Tank basically acts like an academic research group, but does commissioned research when possible. Getting started is a bit of chicken and egg thing, but once you're rolling you're kicking out research which seems to entice private companies into wanting to know more or use your tools.

With Web Ecology Project, we started off doing research on Twitter stuff, happened to grab every tweet out there on the Iran Election in 2009, self published a paper, and then boom. Tons of people wanted our data, expertise, analysis, etc. We weren't ready for this business-like shift, so we somewhat self-imploded for being able to run with it business-wise, but we're still doing research.

Its funny I had the EXACT opposite experience. I realized I wanted to make the products and left to look for opportunities to do so. But I think the point is that people use think tanks for self-affirmation. Whether its research, talking points, connections - my boss once said - it's better to be used than useless.

Most of their work is commissioned, that is, some(one/group/thing) comes to them and ask for their opinion, or they sell topical reports once in a while.

Most think tanks have a bias, and have their "findings" used as justifications.

Which makes me inherently think to never trust anything they say.

Some do a lot more than just commissioned research. It's a very social business and one that, well beyond simple commissioned reports, is used by customers to maintain asymmetric advantages in information awareness and social access. (Some of the best established tanks are staffed in part by elites who, interestingly enough, achieve some notoriety outside of work for throwing some of the most famous elite dinner parties and such.)

Besides commissioned reports:

Expensive periodicals: informing an elite of little known new developments in a field of interest. For example, one article might be a survey of recent research in microprocessor fabrication written for an audience of investment bankers and CEOs.

Expensive membership libraries: Over time, some tanks accumulate extensive libraries of reports, many of which remain useful long after they're written. You can buy one-off copies or buy memberships.

Elite Conferences: Some run invitation-only conferences.

Public speaking, article publishing: self explanatory.

Lobbying: self explanatory.

Being a social butterfly: This requires some explanation because generally money does not change hands. In some cases, the reason the tank is able to do the kind of research is because it "knows all the right people" (and knows the diplomacy of how to speak with them without raising too many legal or social problems). Thus, a report might just come from looking up lots of open source stuff and synthesizing ... or it might come in part from having a lot of conversations with a related elite (who, normally, are barred or just would not speak directly with one another on the matter). As the diplomat, spreading around selected information while protecting sources, etc., they can help elites in industry and government to be "situationally aware" in ways that the general public can not.

Nobody pays them for that but the social butterfly role helps to reinforce the "brand" of the more serious tanks, and so when people are ready to spend on something, they have some reason to think of the tank.

I imagine that these days there are innovations I haven't seen yet (but that must be there) like "hidden" social networks, and such.

From my experience at a political think tank, money comes from big donors who want intellectual support of their pre-conceived positions. There is some "independent research" that goes on along the edges of the "accepted stances," but when a big donor wants an article slanted this way or that, they get it.

From what I can deduce, they get paid to cheerlead or spread FUD by parties with a stake in their area of expertise.

Generally they don't; their overheads are covered by those with a vested interest in supporting their continued existence.

Usually they exist to analyse details and implications of policy decisions proposed or opposed by individuals and organisations that fund them.

In my (limited) exposure to the think tank "industry", it seems that many make a fair chunk of their bottom line through memberships; companies buy memberships to receive publications & analysis, newsletters, networking opportunities and a voice in any policy processes the think tank can get involved in.

Some member companies will pay, partially or fully, for their memberships with services rendered; which means the think tanks have ready access to good and plentiful legal representation & financial advice/management, which must help lower costs quite a lot.

I wonder if it would be possible to create a Think Tank that actually produces ideas, instead of laundering wishful thinking? This could be constructed as a consortium into which companies pay money. The output would be in the form of reports. The idea is to give the money going in a bit of "Platonic Amnesia."

This is a function that Universities used to perform.

SRI International http://sri.com is a non-profit research institution. It does contract research for just about anyone. Of course, DARPA and other government agencies are a very big customer, but you can buy some time from them if you want. They are arguably less influential now than in their cold-war prime,but they still have some good people. You may know of Shakey the robot and the STRIPS planner which are landmarks in AI research. Recently they lost some top robotics people to Willow Garage, a new robotics think tank that is funded by a very rich early Googler.

Reports are the anathema of the profession. Research is critical for reasoned discussion. But once you add political machinations people don't want reason. There are entirely too many winner takes all games played on the backs of the people. Do we really need 'regulated monopolies' providing energy? Or 29 for-profit multinational companies owning the entire electrical grid? Something's afoot!

They could give you money, or they could give that other think tank money that produces reports in their favor...

In this case, those are exactly the customers you don't want and who don't want you.

That's the existing market. It also makes sense, businesses generally don't behave altruistically. Perhaps approaching businesses at all is a mistake, maybe wealthy individuals, social-angels per se.

It's not that businesses don't behave altruistically. It's that humans are usually too short sighted to be willing to pay for honest research of that depth.

So, you've ruled out humanity as potential clients.

Only most of them.

think tank == lobbying

Catch 22?

Think Tanks are paid to consider all possible and plausible eventualities, forecast outcomes and correlate dependencies for their given client or scenario.

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