By: Lesley Brown
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The future of think tanks in a world turned upside down
28 January 2021: to mark the publication of the Global Go To Think Tank Index 2020 – edition N°15 of this annual report by University of Pennsylvania – the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) held a webinar to explore the world of think tanks today, and tomorrow…
On the panel, Jacques Audibert, secretary general, Suez; Vanessa Burggraf, Francophone director, France 24; army corps general Luc de Rancourt, deputy director general, international relations and strategy, French Ministry for Armed Forces; and Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, member of the European Parliament and vice-president, Committee on International Trade (INTA), European Parliament.
Opening the discussion, the speakers explained how they work with think tanks and make use of their research and expertise.
For an international group like Suez, present in 110 countries across the globe, it is clearly important to exchange and deepen knowledge and understanding of these places, as well as those where it hopes to move. Hence the role of think tanks. “NGOs and think tanks on the spot are extremely valuable sources of information for us,“ confirms Mr Audibert. But there’s more besides. A second challenge for Suez is corporate social and environmental responsibility, “a key issue today.” Given this context, simply talking with usual contacts like backers, suppliers, and partners no longer suffices. “We need to shed more light on the landscape through research, discussion, or in-depth work that we commission from think tanks or have carried out in the country where we are working,” expands Mr Audibert.
France 24, which covers world news 24/7 across four channels, in French, English, Arabic, and Spanish, sees think tanks as a “pool of experts and analysts,” explains Ms Burggraf. They help decipher this international news, they fuel debates. Furthermore, publications by think tanks are rich sources of facts, figures and other precious nuggets of information for journalists.
According to Ms Vedrenne, researchers at think tanks help members of the European Parliament and its Commission “strengthen or confront opinions, ideas, to build public policies for Europe that are efficient and defend the interests of its people.” Also, time counts: while politicians work to short timelines, with the added pressure of civil society on their shoulders, researchers have a longer term perspective – which means they can step back and take the necessary distance in today’s fast-paced world. “Having support from researchers is vital in our changing world in order to take the right decisions, to inform decisions…,” insists Ms Vedrenne.
Joining the discussion, General Luc de Rancourt talks about “the extremely close relationship” between the Ministry of the Armed Forces and think tanks, especially in matters of strategic research. He points out the strengths of think tanks being their independent visions, the possibility of exploring multidisciplinary fields, and their unique approaches.
‘Think tanks have increased in number; the scope and impact of their work have also expanded dramatically. Still, [their potential] to support and sustain democratic governments and civil societies around the world is far from exhausted.’
Source: Global Go To Think Tank Index 2020, p.17
French think tanks
With 275 think tanks, France is ranked 6th after the US, India, China, the U.K., and South Korea (see chart below).
“A good score,” reckons General Luc de Rancourt, who considers the context in France for think tanks less favourable than for their Anglophone counterparts. His reasons? “A political, academic, institutional and administrative reality that is very different from English-speaking countries; a degree of disconnect between the different spheres in France; and a society that is somewhat reticent when it comes to private funding, which certainly doesn’t bother our English-speaking partners.”
Indeed, it seems French think tanks are in need of a helping hand to be better recognised. “At the European Parliament, we see think tanks, typically German, that have a strong presence and considerable means,” adds Ms Vedrenne. “Perhaps it’s up to us, political leaders, to foster and promote French think tanks more.”
General Luc de Rancourt agrees with Ms Vedrenne on this point. He draws attention to the role of the French State in maintaining and supporting a pool of young researchers exploring new fields. “We really must pay attention to this pool for the sake of our country. We need increasingly specialised expertise as well as expanding the areas where we, the Ministry of the Armed Forces, and all public policy operates.”
‘Increasingly, think tanks are a global phenomenon because they play a critical role for governments and civil societies around the world by acting as bridges between knowledge (academia) and power (politicians and policymakers).’
Source: Global Go To Think Tank Index 2020, p.17
What does the future hold?
Besides the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent economic fallout, 2020 was a year that certainly accelerated trends and upped the challenges our world is facing: climate change, inequalities, China versus US rivalry, fake news, the many facets of human security. In this somewhat troubled context, how can think tanks contribute in 2021, and beyond?
“There’s no such thing as a uniform world at peace with itself! There are always upheavals,” points out Mr Audibert, who strongly believes in the ‘pathfinder’ role of think tanks with their ability to reflect and work together, fast and efficiently, on highly specific topics. “The more complex and turned upside down the world, the more businesses, administration, and decision-makers need insights.”
With fake news and disinformation rife on social media and digital channels, demand for structures like think tanks to help combat these phenomena must be growing. “We need experts who take fake news apart,” confirms Ms Burggraf.
“The government and the general public alike are relying on think tanks to inform their thinking, especially in an age of increased disinformation, an active assault on truth, and democratic decay.”
John Allen, Brookings Institution (Global Go To Think Tank Index 2020, p.23)
At the European Parliament, Ms Vedrenne is confident think tanks will continue to help enrich understanding of the issues at hand – for the common good – and insists that supporting them is vital. “Decision-makers should accompany think tanks and promote their diversity since it’s important to work with a holistic view.”
As General Luc de Rancourt puts it: “The future of think tanks isn’t bleak. But the ecosystem where they are evolving must contribute towards their expansion.”
Cover photo: Luisella Planeta Leoni – Pixabay