The Think Tankers

Who is an academic?

“I think that some of the best people in this game have been shameless self-promoters,” a Think Tank veteran said. “They’ve got to want to sell their idea. They’ve got to be willing to make the phone calls to the press, push to get on the TV show, stay up nights writing the extra op-ed piece.”

“People who are neurotic that way often are the best people,” he added.

Across America, a growing number of Think Tanks fight to influence public policy and win debates on the issues of the day. In battle they deploy experts who must be a research producer, policy drafter, Congress testifier, and news-show pundit, all wrapped in one.

These are the Think Tankers, and they need academia for their ideas and research. Yet, to be taken seriously by movers and shakers of the policy realm, the Think Tankers can’t do slow journalism in Ivory Tower isolation.

Sociologist Thomas Medvetz pondered this existential question of Think Tank life: How can you identify as an academic but not be an academic?

The Think Tank Orbit

To probe the Think Tanker mind, he conducted dozens of interviews of nearly everyone in the think tank orbit. He spoke to the Think Tank founders and the rank-and-file. He spoke to Think Tank consumers and influencers: the Congressional staff, the journalists, and the philanthropy administrators. He read Think Tanker mission statements, histories, and autobiographies. He hung out at Think Tank events.

Think Tankers have four identities, each a metaphor for the think tank life: academic scholar, policy aide, business entrepreneur, and media specialist.

Consider the academic persona. Organizations refer to their employees as scholars, fellows, and chairs, favorably compare themselves to universities, and promote their .edu domains. Even the research they produce should be academic: empirically driven and built on the shoulders of giants. “Well, good research is good research,” said a Think Tanker, “whether it’s policy-oriented or not. It’s transparent. It’s replicable.”

“The Former This”

To churn out timely policy reports on today’s hot topic, the Think Tanker must be fluent in the work language of Congress. But to be a credible policy aide, it helps to have once been a government employee, hopefully with a fancy title:

“Having former government service helps a lot,” a Think Tanker said. “I think there’s a certain aura that comes with, ‘He is the former ambassador to the Soviet Union,’ or, ‘He is the former Undersecretary of State.’ You know, the fact that it was 20 years ago and you’re kind of pontificating on a subject that you did absolutely nothing on at that point in your life, that doesn’t matter. It’s just, ‘The former this.’ You know, people need a title, and that helps.”

Life of a Salesman

Next is the “business entrepreneur” whose sales audiences are the legislators who buy the policy, the donors who fund the employer, and the journalists who quote their research.

“You gotta be a salesman,” a Think Tank founder said. “You have to present your ideas crisply, convincingly, interestingly, and you have to have enormous energy. You have to have what the salesmen call ‘closing ability.’”

The media specialist is kissing cousin to the salesman. Think tankers can have big special ideas, but they have to keep it short and soundbite ready. “First of all, it has to be intelligible,” a Think Tanker said. “It has to be brief, and digestible. We don’t tend to generate large major reports… By and large what we produce is less than ten pages and our talking points are one page.” As a media specialist, the Think Tanker feels compelled to go on radio and TV.

Outside the Ivory Tower

Think Tankers wrestle with their academic persona. They idealize the academic research model but deride academia for being aloof.

A typical Think Tanker rebuke: “In economics, they put a lot of stock in economic modeling and, I have to say, I just find that such a waste of time because I could show you anything you want in an economic model. The question is, is it really saying anything about the world?…To me it’s just absolutely pointless.”

The Think Tankers bristle at the notion that they are would-be academics who couldn’t make it in academia. Think Tankers counter that they can communicate complex ideas to the public and influence legislation – real world skills and opportunities that Ivory Tower academics don’t have.

They also claim a superior sense of time. “The policy process occurs in real time,” a Think Tank vet said. “And so coming out with a really useful study two years after the reauthorization of the bill is of no earthly use to anyone who is engaged in the real policy process.” While the academic researches the past, the Think Tanker is ever in the present.

For Think Tankers, academia is a talisman against claims of snake oil hucksterism and craven partisanship — you can’t be a hack if you just published a book that has references and footnotes. Though they can complain about it, Think Tankers cling to the academic persona to separate themselves from the lobbyists, congressional staffers, and other influencers of the policy world. In their self-imposed exile, the Think Tankers derive the benefits of intellectualism without the isolation of Ivory Tower life.

The Think Tankers gaze into the windows of the Ivory Tower, permanently camped in the battlefields that surround it.


This was written by Josh Dubrow and is based on the article “‘Public Policy is Like Having a Vaudeville Act’: Languages of Duty and Difference among Think Tank-Affiliated Policy Experts” by Thomas Medvetz published in Qualitative Sociology (2010) 33:549–562.

Think Tanker is my term. Medvetz calls them “policy experts.”

Medvetz noted the gendered language like “salesman” and so on. “I use the pronoun ‘him’ not for stylistic purposes,” wrote Medvetz, “but to reflect the predominantly male make-up of the think tank world.” A 2001 study put the gender balance at major think tanks as 68% male. At the time, the libertarian Cato Institute had 35 men and 1 woman.

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