Home The Washington Diplomat DC-based organizations dominate 2020 list of world’s top think tanks

DC-based organizations dominate 2020 list of world’s top think tanks

DC-based organizations dominate 2020 list of world’s top think tanks
The United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a think tank funded by the federal government, focuses on conflict resolution in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other global hotspots. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

From Australia’s Asialink and Brussels-based Friends of Europe to the Zimbabwe Economic Policy Analysis and Research Unit, think tanks today flourish on every continent except Antarctica. They focus on a wide range of issues including healthcare, defense, fiscal policy and international relations.

Yet it seems that Washington, D.C., is home to more think tanks—and better ones—than any other city on Earth. In fact, six of the world’s 20 best such organizations are headquartered in the nation’s capital, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Strategies Program (TTCSP).

The Brookings Institution, located on Massachusetts Avenue, has been ranked the world’s best think tank specializing in foreign policy and international affairs. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Released on Jan. 28, the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report ranks more than 8,000 think tanks in 85 countries. It was compiled by researcher James G. McGann, director of TTCSP, a division of the Wharton School’s Lauder Institute.

Washington-based think tanks among the top 20 overall were the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (first place); the Center for Strategic & International Studies, or CSIS (4th); the Peterson Institute for International Economics, or PIIE (9th); the Wilson Center (10th); Center for American Progress, or CAP (11th); and the Heritage Foundation (13th).

The Brookings Institution, also based in Washington, was excluded from the overall index because it ranked first worldwide in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and is now designated a “Center of Excellence.” For 2020, the world’s top think is the Japan Institute of International Affairs, led by Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s former ambassador to the United States.

Including only think tanks that specialize in foreign policy and international affairs, the top DC-based performers were Brookings (first place); Carnegie (2nd); CSIS (4th); the Wilson Center (7th); the Atlantic Council (10th) and CAP (20th). Others in the top 20 are based in Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan and South Korea.

8% of nation’s 2,203 think tanks are here in DC

Simply put, says TTCSP, “think tanks are public policy research analysis and engagement organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy.”

Some are fiercely independent and feisty, while others accept government money as well as funding from large defense contractors and foreign embassies. In general, these institutions often act as a bridge between the academic and policymaking communities and between states and civil society, serving in the public interest as an independent voice that translates applied and basic research into a language that is understandable, reliable and accessible for policymakers and the public.

James McGann, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Strategies Program. (Photo courtesy of TTCSP)

According to the report, there are 2,203 think tanks in the United States (compared to 2,932 in Europe), with nearly 8% of the U.S. think tanks based in Washington, D.C. Their numbers have more than doubled since 1980, with most of the newer ones specializing in a particular region or subject area.

McGann, who’s been tracking and ranking think tanks since 2006, said their influence will grow dramatically with Joe Biden in the White House—especially compared to his predecessor, who disdained expert advice on just about everything.

Yet how many experts enter or leave the “revolving door” that links think tanks and the federal government varies from one administration to the next, depending on whether a president is a Washington insider, McGann said.

“Insiders obviously have a greater propensity to use think tanks—and there’s very clear empirical evidence that an extraordinary number of people from think tanks are going into the Biden administration,” he told the Diplomat by phone.

Biden team welcomes CSIS, Brookings, Peterson expertise

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, two ultra-conservative think tanks—Heritage and the Hudson Institute—had an oversized influence on domestic and foreign policy. But with Biden in charge, things will be quite different.

For starters, his White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, was formerly vice-president of communications at Carnegie, while his pick to run the CIA is Carnegie’s president, veteran diplomat William Burns. And the new treasury secretary is Janet Yellen, formerly a distinguished scholar in residence at Brookings.

Luís Alberto Moreno, who until four months ago headed the Inter-American Development Bank, shares a light moment with Luís Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s former ambassador in Washington, and Kevin Whitaker, who served as U.S. envoy to Colombia from 2014 to 2019. The three men are pictured here during an event the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“This is all natural. The United States is unique in that historically, relying on outside experts is deeply embedded in our political culture and institutions,” McGann said. “The Europeans wrongly suggest that this ‘revolving door’ is corruption at its highest level and that the only ‘pure’ advice is from civil servants—which is the furthest thing from the truth.”

CSIS, Brookings and the Peterson Institute will all loom large in the Biden White House, said McGann. Likewise, the Atlantic Council has announced that four of its own have been given senior roles in the new administration, led by Wendy Sherman—a member of the council’s board since February 2018—as deputy secretary of state.

“The United States faces extraordinary challenges posed by COVID-19, a crippled economy, and a rapidly changing global order,” said the council’s president and CEO, Fred Kempe. “Wendy brings to the incoming administration the experience, dedication, and thoughtfulness that will be required for America to emerge from the pandemic stronger and to renew its global standing with partners and allies.”

In addition, Eric Ridge, previously with Atlantic’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, has been named deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. Caitlin Durkovich, who was at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, is now senior director for resilience and response at the National Security Council, while Rebecca Brocato, previously with Atlantic’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, is the NSC’s new senior director for legislative affairs.

Wilson Center also garners top ratings

Four years of Trump have indeed taken their toll on facts, said Brookings President and CEO John Allen, noting that “the government and the general public alike are relying on think tanks to inform their thinking, especially in an age of increased disinformation, an active assault on truth, and democratic decay.”

Added Adam Posen, president of PIIE: “We [have] to make our content more accessible and change the kind of issues we’re looking at…Of course, it goes without saying that we cannot compromise our quality or our objectivity in reaching these objectives.”

Mark Green, the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from 2007 to 2009 and former administrator of USAID, has been named president, director and CEO of the Wilson. He replaces Jane Harman, who is stepping down after 10 years.

In the 2020 index, the Wilson Center—chartered by Congress in 1968 as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson—ranked third in institutional collaboration and sixth in think tanks to watch, for its “excellent research and innovative advances within the past 24 months.”

It was also ranked fourth in international development policy, ninth in best artificial intelligence policy and strategy think tanks, and tenth in think tanks with the most significant impact on public policy.

“The center once again gets top ratings, a huge tribute to our team and ability to expand our reach on a variety of platforms during this long quarantine,” said Wilson’s president, director and CEO, Jane Harman. “We are more productive than ever, and it is gratifying that our peers recognize this year after year.”

Harman, who’s been at the helm of Wilson for 10 years, will be replaced Feb. 28 by Mark Green, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania who’s also served as executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, as well as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Meanwhile, in other think tank news…

The Inter-American Dialogue has announced that two of its initiatives have been shortlisted for the Prospect 2020 Think Tank Awards in the categories of “Climate Change & Environment” and “Medicine, Science & Technology.”

The first initiative, “Preventing the Amazon Tipping Point,” analyzes the main causes of deforestation in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. In its 28-page report, the think tank offers five policy recommendations to tackle deforestation in the world’s largest tropical rainforest. Among them: promoting sustainable agriculture and farming; designing transparent, sustainable infrastructure programs; increasing forest protection monitoring and enforcement; expanding protected areas, and strengthening reforestation programs.

UPenn’s latest index of think tanks ranks six DC-based institutions among the world’s top 20.

The second initiative, “Building an Ecosystem for Education Innovation,” aims to tackle Latin America’s looming education crisis. More children and young adults are attending school, but an alarming number of them drop out early or graduate with low learning levels; COVID-19 is only exacerbating the situation.

“Latin America is desperately lacking a vision for educational innovation, one that takes advantage of the region’s increased connectivity and access to the internet, as well as new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, big data and virtual reality,” say the report’s authors.

Finally, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has elected a new chairman, Kenneth Wollack, as well as six new members to its board of directors: Jessica Adelman, Roxanne Brown, Ambassador Reuben Brigety, Scott Taylor, Kelley Currie andMinxin Pei. Wollack succeeds Andrew H. Card Jr., who chaired NED’s board from 2018 to 2020.

“The NED Board will greatly benefit from the leadership of Ken Wollack during this important time of transition for both our government and for NED,” said the liberal think tank’s president, Carl Gershman. “Ken’s extensive knowledge of the democracy assistance field, and the NED family of institutions in particular, is unmatched. I have greatly benefited from his support and guidance for many years and it gives me great confidence to know that he will be guiding the board during the critical period ahead.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.