What Is a Think Tank? Definition and Examples

A sign points to a think tank discussion area created by Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.
A sign points to a think tank discussion area created by Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, October 11, 2011. Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

A think tank is an institute or corporation that uses specialized knowledge to perform in-depth research on a wide variety of subjects. Some think tanks also advocate for change by using their research to influence public opinion and policymakers. Especially in today’s complex societies, the analytical reports produced by think tanks play an influential role in helping decision-makers craft major policy agendas.

Key Takeaways: What Is a Think Tank?

  • Think tanks are organizations that study and report on a wide range of subjects and issues in both government and private sectors.
  • Think tanks often advocate for social and political change by using their research to influence public opinion.
  • The reports produced by think tanks can play a major role in helping government leaders craft major policy agendas.
  • Many, but not all, think tanks can be classified as being either liberal or conservative in their policy recommendations

Think Tank Definition

Think tanks conduct research and provide advice and advocacy in a wide range of topics such as social policy, national defense and military, the economy, culture, and emerging technology. While most think tanks are not part of the government and are often nonprofit organizations, they may work for government agencies as well as private companies, political parties, and special interest advocacy groups. When working for government agencies, think tanks typically undertake research on social and economic policy, national defense, and legislation. Their commercial research focuses on product development and the utilization of new technologies. Think tanks are funded by a combination of endowments, government contracts, private donations, and sales of their reports and data.

While both think tanks and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) perform in-depth research and analysis, the two are functionally different. Unlike think tanks, NGOs are almost always nonprofit voluntary citizens’ groups made up of people who share a common interest or cause. Through the information they provide, NGOs work on local to worldwide levels to influence social and humanitarian policy, make governments aware of citizen concerns, and advocate for public participation in government and politics.

Once rare, the number of think tanks grew rapidly during the late 1980s, largely due to the end of the Cold War, the fall of communism, and the emergence of globalization. Today, there are approximately 1,830 think tanks in the United States alone. Due to their need to have access to key policymakers, more than 400 of these think tanks are located in Washington, D.C.

Types of Think Tanks

Think tanks are classified according to their purpose, social or political viewpoint, source of funding, and intended customers. In general, three types of think tanks can be most easily identified: ideological, specialized, and action-oriented.

Ideological

Ideological think tanks express a definite political philosophy or bias. Typically expressing either conservative or liberal viewpoints, ideological think tanks are founded to formulate solutions to sociopolitical problems and actively work to persuade government leaders to apply those solutions. Some especially high-profile ideological think tanks advocate solutions that benefit their corporate donors. In doing so, they are often criticized for crossing the ethical line between research and lobbying.

Specialized

Specialized think tanks—often affiliated with and supported by non-partisan institutions like universities—conduct research and report on both broad subjects, such as global economics, and on specialized topics, such as environmental quality, the food supply, and public health. Rather than trying to influence policymakers, they work only to inform them.

Action-Oriented

Action-oriented, or “think and do” think tanks, actively participate in implementing the solutions formulated through their research. Their level of participation may extend from funding humanitarian projects, such as eliminating famine in underdeveloped countries to physically assisting with the construction of facilities like reservoirs and irrigation systems in arid regions of the world. In this manner, action-oriented think tanks are similar to NGOs.

Think tanks can also be classified according to their sources of funding and intended customers. Some think tanks, such as the highly regarded independent Rand Corporation, receive direct government assistance, most others are funded by private individuals or corporate donors. A think tank’s source of funding also reflects whom it hopes to influence and what it hopes to achieve by doing so. As political philosopher and commentator Peter Singer once wrote, “Some donors want to influence votes in Congress or shape public opinion, others want to position themselves or the experts they fund for future government jobs, while others want to push specific areas of research or education.”

While there are many non-partisan think tanks, the most visible express conservative or liberal ideals.

Top Conservative Think Tanks

Among conservative and libertarian think tanks, some of the most influential include:

Cato Institute (Washington, D.C.)

Founded by Charles Koch, Cato Institute is named after Cato's Letters, a series of pamphlets published in the 1720s, credited with helping to inspire the American Revolution. Primarily libertarian in its philosophy, Cato advocates for a reduced role of government in domestic policy and foreign affairs, the protection of individual liberty, and a free market economy

American Enterprise Institute (Washington, D.C.)

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) seeks to “defend the principles of American freedom and democratic capitalism” through the protection of “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.” Associated with neo-conservatism as embodied in the Bush Doctrine, several AEI scholars worked as advisors in the George W. Bush administration.

Heritage Foundation (Washington, D.C.)

Rising to prominence during the Ronald Reagan administration, the Heritage Foundation closely tracks government spending and the federal budget as they affect the national debt and deficit. Reagan credited Heritage's official policy study, “Mandate for Leadership,” as the inspiration for many of his policies.

Discovery Institute (Seattle, WA)

Discovery Institute is best known for its policy statements advocating “intelligent design,” the belief that life is too complex to have evolved solely through Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but was created by an unseen super-advanced entity. Discovery promotes a “Teach the Controversy” campaign aimed at convincing U.S. public high schools to teach both the theories of evolution and intelligent design.

Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA)

Founded by Herbert Hoover in 1919 and now associated with his alma mater Stanford University, the institution, which describes itself as being “moderate conservative,” is considered a leader in domestic economic policy, security, and international affairs. In keeping with its namesake, the Hoover Institution maintains the tenets of “representative government, private enterprise, peace, and personal freedom.”

Top Liberal Think Tanks

Five of the most influential liberal or progressive think tanks are:

Human Rights Watch (New York, NY)

Human Rights Watch reports international violations of human rights in an attempt to convince governments to reform. Often associated with controversial philanthropist George Soros, Human Rights Watch is often accused of promoting the foreign policy of liberal U.S. presidential administrations, especially in Russia and the Middle East.

Urban Institute (Washington, D.C.)

Founded by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to study its “Great Society” domestic reforms, the institute reports on topics ranging from civil rights violations by police to the ease of access to U.S. public schools by immigrant children. On a scale of liberalism, the institute is ranked by the independent Quarterly Journal of Economics along with the NAACP and PETA.

Center for American Progress (CAP) (Washington, D.C.)

In keeping with its motto “Progressive ideas for a strong, just, and free America,” CAP focuses on major domestic policy issues, such as health, education, and economic inequality. CAP’s fame in progressive circles peaked during the 2008 presidential election, when its “Generation Progress” college campus program backed Democrat Barack Obama.

Guttmacher Institute (New York, NY)

Guttmacher reports on some of America’s most divisive issues, including abortion and contraception. Founded in 1968 as an independent division of Planned Parenthood, Guttmacher raised more than $16 million for its reproductive services in 2014. Today, the Guttmacher Institute continues to advance policies for sexual and reproductive health equally in the U.S. and around the world.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) (Washington, D.C.)

Founded in 1968 by a former political appointee of President Jimmy Carter, CBPP studies the effect of federal and state government spending and budgeting policies from a liberal viewpoint. The center generally advocates for increased government spending for social programs, partially funded by eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy.

Sources and Further Reference

  • de Boer, John. “What are Think Tanks Good for?” United Nations University, Center for Policy Research, March 17, 2015, https://cpr.unu.edu/what-are-think-tanks-good-for.html.
  • Larsen, Rick B. “So what does a think tank have to do with your life?” Sutherland Institute, May 30, 2018, https://sutherlandinstitute.org/think-tank-life/.
  • “Some Think Tanks Blur Line Between Research and Lobbying.” Philanthropy News Digest, August 10, 2016, https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/some-think-tanks-blur-line-between-research-and-lobbying.
  • Singer, Peter. “Washington's Think Tanks: Factories to Call Our Own.” The Washingtonian, August15, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20100818130422/http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/16506.html.