Policy progress: UK think tanks in 2020

Today we publish the second annual think tank survey Policy Progress: UK think tanks in 2020. Whereas last year’s survey focused a lot on the overall health of public policy debate in the UK after a few years of political turmoil this survey shows that (unsurprisingly) Covid-19 has dominated the past year for the think tank sector as much as everywhere else. While Covid-19 is listed as the biggest challenge the think tanks faced in 2020 it appears to have had some positive outcomes. In their response to the pandemic (which includes a shift to online events, the pivoting of research programmes and generally responding quickly to new government initiatives) an overwhelming majority believe it has helped to widen their audience and most are planning to keep some of the changes (such as offering events online).

Overall people in the sector seem more positive than 12 months ago. 59% said that felt optimistic about the future of the sector, up from 45% last year so despite unprecedented challenges over the past 12 months it would appear that the sector as a whole is feeling robust. The one main concern going forward seems to be around lack of funding. At the beginning of 2020 41% listed it as one of the main challenges facing the sector over the next year. At the beginning of 2021 this had increased to 67%.

The think tanks surveyed included a mixture of small organisations (with less than 10 staff) through to large international institutions with over 50 employees. Those surveyed work in think tanks ranging from left to right on the political spectrum, produce research on both domestic and international policy and occupy research, communications and operations roles.

Key findings:

  • 63% thought Covid-19 had been the biggest challenge facing their think tank in 2020, with 90% confirming that it had changed the direction of their research;
  • 82% believed their response to the pandemic had helped to widen their audience. A large part of this seems to be the shift to online events – 88% are planning to keep a hybrid online/in-person model going forward
  • Brexit as an issue either in research or as an influence on the policy environment has dramatically decreased. Brexit did not make the top 5 most popular event topics this year, only 31% said it had been a research priority and while 85% in 2019 believed the current political climate to be having a negative effect on public policy discussion this year only 51% thought the rise in fake news and distrust of experts was a risk to think tanks compared to 64% last year;
  • 43% of respondents believe a think tank’s most valuable contribution is evidence-based research, down from 49% last year;
  • Last year political uncertainty and the quality of public debate topped the list of the biggest challenges facing think tanks in the next 12 months at 66% and 64% respectively. This year these categories had fallen to 20% and 39%;
  • The biggest challenge facing the sector going forward is lack of funding (listed by 67%) and the recovery from Covid-19 at 65%;
  • Think tanks have responded to other significant events in 2020. Diversity was listed by 30% as one of the biggest challenges facing the sector in 2020 and while this has increase slightly to 33% this year 57% agreed that their think tank had become more focused on staff diversity over the course of the past 12 months. This is also reflected externally with society and diversity being one of the most popular event topics;
  • 59% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I feel optimistic about the future of the think tank sector’, up from 45% last year.
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