Tom Hamburger and Alexander Becker report at The Washington Post:
Over the past decade, a new business model has taken hold at Brookings. The Washington institution renowned for impeccable research and its clout as an independent policy architect has in recent years placed an emphasis on expansion and fundraising — giving scholars a bigger role in seeking money from donors and giving donors a voice in Brookings’s research agenda.
The shift has been powered by a new era of corporate influence in Washington, in which wealthy interests outside government are looking for new avenues to reach policymakers on the inside. Lobbyists are increasingly encouraging clients to donate to Brookings and other think tanks as a way of getting researchers to spend time on the issues that donors care about. Lobbyists say they warn clients not to expect that they can dictate research results from an elite think tank such as Brookings but note that they gain a chance to make their case directly to researchers, stay in touch as papers are written and suggest participants in public forums.
By enlisting Brookings and other top-tier think tanks, “you can amplify or raise an issue,” said Ed Kutler, a senior partner at Mercury, a public affairs and lobbying firm that has developed expertise in think tanks. “You can buy attention, but not a point of view or an outcome.”
James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, said Brookings provides an unusual level of disclosure regarding its funding and relatively strong internal ethics guidelines. He said Brookings’s broad donor base gives it a higher level of protection from funders’ influence than other think tanks.
Still, McGann said that contributors to think tanks are increasingly “determining the agenda of research institutions they support,” McGann said. “They become interlopers and can have a highly distorting effect.”