Foreign Policy MagazineJanuary/February 2009
By James McGann
It’s no accident that Barack Obama plucked his transition chief from a think tank. The world’s idea factories are charged with brainstorming solutions to everything from global warming to Wall Street’s implosion to the war on terror. In the first index of its kind, FP ranks the world’s best think tanks.
In Washington, it’s not for nothing that think tanks are called “governments in waiting.” Presidents seek them out because they are critical to the global ideas industry. Far more than simply churning out endless papers, think tank wonks generate and fine-tune solutions to some of the most complex and vexing issues of the day. Leaders around the world need them to provide independent analysis, help set policy agendas, and bridge the gap between knowledge and action.
But not all think tanks are created equal. There are some 5,500 think tanks worldwide, in nearly 170 countries. Some organizations specialize in security; others in the environment. Some are intensely partisan; others fiercely independent. Some have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars; others are one-person operations. Some are already changing the world with their big ideas; others merely aspire to.
Until now, there has been no guide to this rapidly growing global industry. The Think Tank Index is the first comprehensive ranking of the world’s top think tanks, based on a worldwide survey of hundreds of scholars and experts. Think of it as an insider’s guide to the competitive marketplace for ideas that matter.
The Think Tank Field Guide
Top 30 U.S. Think TanksTop 20 Non-U.S. Think Tanks
There are 5,465 think tanks worldwide.
- 1,208 in Western Europe
- 653 in Asia
- 538 in Latin America and the Caribbean
- 514 in Eastern Europe
- 424 in sub-Saharan Africa
- 218 in the Middle East and North Africa
- 38 in Oceania
- There are 1,777 think tanks in the United States.
- Nine out of 10 U.S. think tanks were created since 1951.
- The number of U.S. think tanks has more than doubled since 1980.
- Approximately 350 think tanks are based in Washington, more than in any country other than the United States.
Prior to launching the Think Tank Index, extensive research was conducted to develop a comprehensive list of all think tanks in the world. Relying on previous studies, think tank directories and databases, and experts in the field, 5,465 institutions worldwide were identified for inclusion in the study.
To create a more manageable list from which to identify leading think tanks, an international group of scholars, think tank executives, public and private donors, and policymakers were then asked to nominate think tanks they consider to be the best in the world. These experts used selection criteria such as a think tank's ability to retain elite scholars and analysts; access to elites in policymaking, media, and academia; media reputation; reputation with policymakers; scholarly output; and usefulness of the organization's information, among others. This effort resulted in a list of approximately 400 think tanks worldwide that were then included in the Think Tank Impact Survey.
The Think Tank Impact Survey was then sent to hundreds of think tank scholars, think tank executives, and government and NGO personnel who fund think tanks. More than 150 responses from this panel of experts were received. These respondents ranked the list of think tanks by region and research area, the results of which are seen here.
James McGann is assistant director of the international relations program at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program.
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