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Think Tanks in a Time of Crisis and Paralysis

Think Tanks in a Time of Crisis and Paralysis

On the Sidelines or Catalysts for Ideas and Actions?
European Think Tank Summit Joint Communiqué and Summit Report

The world's first meeting of leading international think tanks based in and around the European continent, which took place on 20 November 2012 in Rome, concluded with recommendations for think tanks, donors, and policy communities concerning think tanks.

The Summit focused on lessons from the current fiscal and economic crises in Europe, and sought ways to enhance the role of think tanks in anticipating crises and providing effective early warning, formulating dynamic and innovative ideas for solutions, and overcoming the policy paralysis that often aggravates crises. Sydney Baloue, Transatlantic Fellow at Ecologic Institute, acted as lead rapporteur for the event.

Participants of the Summit discussed the lack of a pan-European "infrastructure" for think tanks and that there is room for European think tanks to further policy debates on European unity and transatlantic cooperation. Many think tanks in Europe pursue a national-policy agenda or work on traditional issues of international relations and (military) security, while higher attention should be attached to European policies, notably EU or Euro-zone policies. Europe tends to be seen predominantly as a geographical entity and is not yet sufficiently interpreted as an institutional body or major policy driver for think tank intellectual production and policy synthesis.

In addition, think tanks lack common standards (best practices) for their funding, the publicity of their output, and transparency in dealing with conflicts of interest and maintaining neutrality. Similarly, there is no minimum legal standard across Europe for protecting the independence and integrity of think tanks (and other non-governmental organisations).

It was decided that a pan-European infrastructure for think tanks requires a multitude of competitive, independent, dispersed institutions with strategic capacity that engage in constructive contestation of policy ideas based on a foundation of common knowledge and shared understanding of political agenda items.

The future of Europe-encompassing think tank framework

A future Europe-encompassing think tank framework would also require habits of cooperation and coordination in partnerships to ensure that dialogue reaches across language barriers, scientific disciplines, and policy fields and adds value by providing practical and useful solutions to societal and political challenges. Only with this type of infrastructure would it be possible to address complex policy problems from multiple vantage points and formulate integrated policies and proposals for complex issues such as those between economics, energy, security and climate change.

In view of the multi-centric nature of European polity, "Brussels-focused" think tanks should find a counterweight of nationally-based think tanks, which focus on European questions from national perspectives. Towards this end, Europe still needs a "value narrative", which describes the contribution of think tanks to policy design and scientific insights, and a discourse on the changing role of think tanks in the regional economic and political integration of Europe, especially the EU and the Euro zone.

The changing political and institutional context in Europe challenges think tanks to redefine their identity, their agenda, and their modus operandi, including working and publishing in one or more national languages (in addition to English).

The European think tank research agenda

Most European think tank funders, including boards, provide direction or set the research agenda and tend to be structurally and thematically conservative, which slows the adoption of new opportunities for communication and the ability to have a constructive impact on policy debate. To this aim, it was decided that funders should share some of the risks think tanks face, and as partners enable think tanks to work on "worst case scenarios" or issues that "keep Europe's leaders awake at night".

Better funding mechanisms and partnership should help overcome the current short-termism in funding and research horizons, and difficulties in maintaining continuity in some areas of research. A newly structured framework embracing emerging issue areas in light of rapidly changing agendas should not be perceived as major threats to longer-term capacities and aptitudes for think tanks, but rather this change will hopefully better prepare Europe for future crises.

While some progress has been made, most think tanks are still slow in adapting their communication to new and younger audiences as a way to maintain relevance in future public and political discussions. This is not just an issue of becoming active on new social media platforms. The on-going changes in information and communication technology and the new social habits forming around them are already altering the dynamics of debate.

The future role of the summit

The future role of this regional Summit will be to provide a meaningful forum for exploring new forms of agenda setting and influence through new forms of acclamation and legitimacy. Because of internal, structural and external (funding) structures, many think tanks struggle to adjust their strategies for communication and influencing debates and policy choices and therefore need a constructive forum to discuss and strategize on how to address these challenges.

Finally, the TTCSP expressed its willingness to continue to facilitate and further these important discussions through the development of regional and global think tanks Summits. TTCSP proposed helping organize an annual European Think Tanks Summit in partnership with leading think tanks in Europe. The goal of future Summits would be to foster an exchange of ideas and information among the world's leading think tanks and to help connect European think tanks to the worldwide network of think tanks being organized by the TTCSP.

The conference paper [pdf, 2 MB, English] is available for download.