Paving the way: the future of UK think tanks


The first survey of UK think tanks has been conducted by Smart Thinking and charts the challenges and opportunities the sector faces.

Key findings:

  • Majority of think tanks think election manifestos weren’t informed by evidence-based policy
  • 85% of those working in UK think tanks believe the current political climate to be having a negative impact on public policy discussion
  • Only 28% of those surveyed reported that they or their think tank had engaged with the political parties on their election plans
  • 58% believe the think tank sector faces more challenges today than it did 3 years ago

In the first survey of UK think tanks Smart Thinking looks at how healthy policy debate is in the UK after years of political tribalism. It reports on the unique challenges currently facing the think tank sector and how it could, and should, adapt to this changing environment.

Think tanks have traditionally been seen as policy labs for government and political parties from which they can pluck ideas and policy agendas. However, our analysis reveals that only 28% of those surveyed reported that they or their think tank had engaged with the political parties on their 2019 General Election plans. Furthermore, a majority did not agree that well-informed policy research had found its way into the election manifestos.

There are a variety of factors at play as to why this may be happening. 64% thought that the quality of public debate was the biggest challenge facing UK think tanks in the next 12 months while another 64% thought that distrust in experts and the rise in fake news was a direct risk to the sector itself and to policy discussion.

Partly this is due to the all-encompassing nature of Brexit which has not only squeezed out other policy areas for 3 years but also reduced trust in ‘experts’, a group think tanks are typically associated with. As politics has become more partisan politicians have been getting their policies and ideas in new and different ways, including more grassroots engagement. However, 58% of those surveyed still placed politicians as their most important audience with just 14% believing it to be the general public.

Adapting to this shift in demand from politicians and policymakers 49% believe that their most valuable contribution is in producing evidence-based research compared to just 30% who thought it was in producing policy recommendations, moving further away from the old ‘policy lab’ model of influence.

Other adaptations by think tanks involve increased transparency in the sector with 47% calling for all donors and donations to be declared. A lack of diversity is also considered by 30% as one of the biggest challenges for think tanks in the next year.

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