What Is a Think Tank?

A think tank is a group or organization that researches and often advocates on a broad topic like economics, the military, technology, social issues, or culture. Some think tanks have political bents (e.g., the conservative The Heritage Foundation or the liberal Human Rights Watch). Others have a scientific focus, such as the Federation of American Scientists and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The think tank world is large, with more than 7,500 think tanks (PDF, 149 KB) around the globe.

The think tank is a relatively recent creation. The term “think tank” was coined during World War II to describe a safe place where wartime plans and strategies could be discussed. At the time, a handful of American groups were already working in the think tank model, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution.

But the first group to emerge in the modern think tank mold was Project RAND (PDF, 1.5 MB) in 1945. It was aimed at continuing to foster the creative efforts of engineers and scientists who came up with military breakthroughs such as radar and the proximity fuse. RAND was short for Research and Development. The project continues today as the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization that works on military and civilian issues.

What Do Think Tanks Do?

Think tanks are designed to provide expertise for policymaking and decision-making. They are places where scholars produce rigorous and in-depth research. Think tanks are usually goal oriented around a shared focus. Instead of pushing a position regardless of the facts, think tanks typically stand back from the fray and offer insights that might contribute to a discussion of interest to governments or businesses. As The Economist puts it, “think tanks aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking.”

These think tanks can have real-world impact, too: Margaret Thatcher is said to have relied on the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs when she set out to privatize large swaths of the British economy. The now-defunct National Center for Policy Analysis helped launch efforts in the United States for health savings accounts and Roth IRAs. President Ronald Reagan gave every cabinet member a book from The Heritage Foundation called Mandate for Leadership, which provided an outline for the conservative principles he hoped to enact.

Think tanks pull people from a variety of educational backgrounds, depending on the particular focus. Public policy think tanks concentrate on how government works, while others zoom in on global issues such as poverty or regional issues such as local economic development. Foreign policy think tanks and education think tanks have developed over time to serve their specialties.

What Makes Think Tanks Different

It can be tough to see the difference between think tanks and advocacy organizations such as lobby groups, especially as the number of think tanks has grown to focus on narrower areas of inquiry. Advocacy groups often serve a corporate interest. Think tanks, by contrast, are usually described as nonpartisan and have a primary mission of charitable public giving, which provides greater assurance that the ideas and policies being pushed are done so in the genuine public interest. Think tanks are usually governed by volunteer boards, not paid boards.

Challenges Facing Think Tanks

Washington, DC, is home to a large number of think tanks, all producing an endless stream of reports, commentary, and more—think tanks so productive that Brookings describes them as “factories to call our own.” However, DC is also home to many advocacy groups, and they both trade in ideas. This has led to the blurring of lines. Even reputable think tanks have to contend with donors or special interest groups who may wish to steer their mission or exert undue influence. 

Think tanks also are facing competition from consulting firms, which often produce the kind of high-quality policy research that once was the lonely domain of think tanks. Consulting firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton or McKinsey & Company can employ the same kind of expertise as think tanks, albeit from a different perspective.  

Top Think Tanks to Know 

American Enterprise Institute: This public policy think tank is officially nonpartisan, like most think tanks, while being closely associated with conservative causes. Scholars and staff were considered major architects of White House policy under George W. Bush. The institute is based in Washington, DC. 

Aspen Institute: The institute is focused on educational and public policy studies, ranging from the impact of sports to the environment to criminal justice. Based in Washington, DC, it sponsors the annual Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado, where speakers from around the world give talks on a range of topics. 

Brookings Institution: The Washington, DC, public policy think tank hosts more than 300 experts in government and academia, primarily to study economics, urban policy, and development. Brookings is widely considered one of America’s most prestigious think tanks. 

Cato Institute: Founded in Wichita, Kansas, by conservative businessman Charles Koch, this libertarian think tank is involved in public advocacy and examining society. Cato moved to Washington, DC, in 1981 and earned a reputation for influential research. The think tank runs the website Libertarianism.org.

Center for American Progress: Created in 2003, this public policy group with a progressive bent is focused on economic and social issues. A relative newcomer in the think tank world, the Center runs an influential news and opinion site called ThinkProgress.

Council on Foreign Relations: Headquartered in New York City with an additional DC office, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization that is focused on foreign policy; they also publish Foreign Policy magazine. Founded in 1921, the Council hosts influential scholars and former government officials to discuss ideas about war, economics, human rights, and government policy.

Heritage Foundation: As the nation’s largest conservative research and educational institution, this DC-based think tank wields considerable influence among Republican policymakers. This was particularly during President Ronald Reagan’s administration and has continued through President Donald Trump’s term.  

Hoover Institution: Scholars and experts at this Stanford University think tank have included Republican heavyweights such as Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. One of its major initiatives is looking for private market solutions to climate change.

Urban Institute: An economic think tank and social policy research center in Washington, DC, the Urban Institute was created in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to study urban problems and the effects of anti-poverty measures. It focuses on topics such as housing, taxation, and philanthropy. 

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: This public policy think tank was chartered in 1968 by Congress as the official President Woodrow Wilson memorial. The Center brings together scholars and researchers to examine issues of national and international importance, such as nuclear proliferation and environmental sustainability. It is one of the few prominent think tanks, including the Urban Institute, to get substantial US government funding.

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Citation for this content: MPA@UNC, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government's online MPA program