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Environmental Think Tanks as Actors and Research Objects – Comparing the U.S. and EU Perspectives

Environmental Think Tanks as Actors and Research Objects – Comparing the U.S. and EU Perspectives

Environmental Think Tanks as Actors and Research Objects – Comparing the U.S. and EU Perspectives

Berlin, Germany
James G. McGann

On 12 October 2009, a transatlantic Ecologic Dinner Dialogue was held in Berlin in honour of James G. McGann, Director of the “Think Tanks and Foreign Policy Program” of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) at the University of Pennsylvania. In his talk, James G. McGann presented the findings of his latest research on environmental think tanks and laid out the differences between EU and US environmental think tanks. In his view, there are important differences in the political cultures of the two regions.

James G. McGann’s presentation...

According to James G. McGann, there are currently 6,976 existing think tanks worldwide and of these, 917 are environmental think tanks. The 217 environmental think tanks in North America mainly focus on climate change, sustainable development, water sanitation and water management as well as environmental policy and management. Shortfalls in North American think tanks’ agendas are environmental disasters, trade and environment as well as poverty and environmental degradation. In contrast, the 252 environmental think tanks in the EU mainly focus on sustainable development, alternative energy sources and natural resources. The main shortfall in the agendas of Eastern European think tanks is that environmental research is tied to economic development goals. Therefore, many Eastern European think tanks favour non-governmental and technocratic solutions to environmental problems. The establishment of new environmental think tanks, both in the US and the EU, has been slowing down since 2000. However, while this slow-down is dramatic in the US it is less striking in the EU.

In his final comparison between the EU and the US, James G. McGann pointed out that there are important differences between their political cultures. In his view, the major differences are the following:


More think tanks. Fewer think tanks.
Larger staff and budgets. Smaller staff and budgets.
Greater visibility and influence. Less influential in policy decisions.
Significant independence. Greater reliance on government funding and lack of transparency.


In his talk, James G. McGann sketched the context of think tanks giving firstly a global overview of think tanks, secondly focusing on environmental think tanks and thirdly comparing the EU with the US. In his view, think tanks have five major characteristics:

  1. They are knowledge-based and policy-oriented institutions.
  2. They serve governments, intergovernmental organizations and civil society.
  3. They generate policy-oriented research, analyses and advice on domestic and international issues.
  4. They engage policy-makers, the media and the public on key policy issues.
  5. They enable policy-makers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues

James McGann went on to explain recent trends concerning think tanks. During the 1960s and 1970s, think tanks started to appear in large numbers, particularly in the OECD countries. During the 1980s, think tanks started to expand globally and it was at that time that the first studies on think tanks began forming a literature. The 1990s were characterised by an explosive increase in the number of think tanks worldwide. Since 2000, global networks of think tanks form the most comprehensive source of information internationally available for policy makers.

The workshop and the Dinner Dialogue did provide the opportunity for the participants to discuss the role of think tanks and the characteristics of think tanks in the German context. This exchange not only provided the opportunity for environmental think tanks to obtain input for their future work but also to provide James G. McGann with insights about the functioning of environmental think tanks in Germany. Discussion also included the question of whether think tanks are perceived differently by various administrations and whether administrations are becoming more open to external expertise.

…followed by a lively discussion

The discussion following James G. McGann’s talk touched upon several issues related to environmental think tanks, the differences between the EU and the US as well as methodological issues.

One hot topic was the issue of measuring the impacts of (environmental) think tanks. Participants discussed what good indicators might be for measuring the impacts of think tanks -- for instance, the number of conferences hosted, media attention received, the number of publications produced or the number of citations to a think tank. The challenge lies in developing indicators which don’t simply measure the output of think tanks but which determine their impact.

Closely linked to the question of impact is also the issue of influence. During the discussion it became clear that in the US think tanks are expected to have visible influence, while in the EU their influence is expected to be invisible. The vivid discussion revealed that there is a need for a debate on whether and how the work of think tanks – and work related to policy advice generally – can be measured through indicators.
James G. McGann’s workshop and Dinner Dialogue drew an interesting conclusion about think tanks in the EU and US and their perceived independence. Think tanks in the EU are often funded by government whereas those in the US are often funded through donations. Both consider themselves to be independent, but would not, if they were to be in the other’s position.

Think Tanks in context

Think tanks are on the rise – and so is research on think tanks. While the institutional format is well established and has a long history in the US, it is less well established in Europe, particularly in certain regions. In the Anglo-Saxon context, for example, the idea of using think tanks for providing ideas for the political process is much more accepted and more widely used than in Germany.

FPRI can be characterised as think tanks’ think tank. In other words, FPRI is the leading think tank analysing this specific institutional set-up and James G. McGann conducts comprehensive research on think tanks. The main aim of the Dinner Dialogue and the workshop that preceded it was not only to learn about James McGann’s latest results in his research on environmental think tanks, but also to foster a dialogue between a researcher and a group of practitioners.

James G. McGann’s presentation [pdf, 2 MB, English] on “The Earthly Truth: Analyzing the Nature of Environmental Think Tanks” is available for download. This presentation is based on a research report that will be published later this fall.

Further links:

James G. McGann
Berlin, Germany