There also appears to be no significant correlation between the change in an organization’s impact over time and growth in executive compensation, much less the dramatic increases in impact that would be required to justify the high compensation growth shown above. On the other hand, there does appear to be some evidence of a change in focus at most major think tanks. Almost across the board, h-index scores (a more academic measure) have noticeably declined, while op-eds (typically written to advance a more immediate political concern) have noticeably increased. Various explanations can be offered, but one interpretation is that think tanks, initially conceived of as “universities without students,” are now mostly functioning as advocacy organizations.
Think tanks are widely known to be breeding grounds for congressional staffers and presidential appointees (despite Trump’s relative unpopularity at think tanks, the current administration is no exception), and they have numerous points of contact with politicians. Thus a more significant measure of impact might be the number of think-tank fellows appointed to executive or legislative roles or the number of nonpublic meetings held with politicians and their staffs. In other words, think tanks today may mainly function as lobbying firms, and many donors may evaluate their impact primarily on that basis.
This was essentially the conclusion of a 2014 paper by Ken Silverstein entitled “Pay to Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas.”8 Silverstein details the many ways in which think-tank agendas (across the ideological spectrum) are increasingly driven by donors, including large corporations and foreign governments. In exchange for larger contributions, many think tanks allow donors to set or veto research topics, sponsor public events under the aegis of a nonprofit organization, enjoy private access to influential politicians or foreign leaders, and so on. Silverstein reports that scholars at the Center for American Progress were told to speak to the development office before publishing on topics that might adversely affect donor interests. Silverstein also describes situations in which think tanks worked to burnish the image of foreign governments and corporations after receiving large donations from them.