Policy Papers

Historians and Think Tanks: Lessons from the U.S. Marketplace of Ideas

Jacob Forward |

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Executive Summary

  • Despite interest from both sides in a closer collaboration there is currently a disconnect between professional historians and policymakers.
  • US think tanks, as intermediary organisations that have become highly efficient at funding themselves and marketing their experts, offer interesting lessons in how this gap can be crossed.
  • These think tanks would themselves benefit from more actively harnessing academic expertise, as closer association with universities would help alleviate their financial vulnerabilities and enhance their public credibility.
  • Historians are currently underrepresented in the think tank community and offer a unique set of skills to the policy world, in particular their facility with deploying metaphors, and informing, reframing and enriching the language of public debate.
  • There is a resurgent interest in applied history projects which suggests that the above arguments are starting to be recognised and offers important opportunities to History & Policy.




For nearly two decades History & Policy has been home to a debate over the extent to which professional historians can and should contribute to the contemporary policy process. Indeed, its very formation implies a stance on this debate, as expressed in its mission statement and in notable articles by John Tosh, and Peter J. Beck among others. However, these questions date back to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, whose argument for the relevance of his history of the Peloponnesian War relied on the idea that “events of future history will be of the same nature - or nearly so - as the history of the past, so long as men are men.” It is only comparatively recently that historians from across the ideological spectrum, from the post-modernists on the one hand to the likes of Geoffrey Elton on the other, have dismissed attempts at seeking the relevance of history and hence distanced themselves from the Thucydidean view and from engaging with policymakers. Nevertheless, the recent evacuation of Kabul, which so closely mirrored that of Saigon at the close of the Vietnam War, has forced policymakers to consider why lessons haven’t been learnt and history now seems more relevant than ever. A recent report by the Institute for Government, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK, found that there exists a real interest among policymakers in a closer engagement with historians. And from the other side, the Research Excellence Framework; the UK’s main system for quality-checking academic research, uses “impact beyond academia” as one of its three main criteria for evaluating the quality of research, thereby pushing historians to consider the relevance of their work to contemporary policy issues. While few would suggest that history repeats itself in any literal sense, one can certainly argue the need for a closer collaboration between policymakers and historians, and this article will consider the merits and limitations of the think tank model as a vehicle for reuniting the worlds of History & Policy.

There is much scholarly debate over how to define a think tank, as there exists such a diverse spectrum of these remarkable institutions around the world including both independent and affiliated organisations. Nevertheless, think tanks in the US tend fit certain descriptors: they tend to be independent, non-profit research centres focused on positively impacting public policy. The above word-cloud, composed from the mission statements of the top 30 US think tanks, as ranked in the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, helps illustrate how they describe themselves. The term ‘think tank’, once a derogatory name for the human head, now refers to thousands of such institutions worldwide, which grew from a handful of early twentieth-century foundations by tycoons like Carnegie and Rockefeller, boomed in the latter half of the century and now offer specialist research on every imaginable policy area. The think tank scene is most vibrant in the US by some margin, with 2,203 think tanks compared to the UK’s 515, hence this article’s focus on examples from across the Atlantic. They occupy a broad swathe of what Donald Ableson describes as the ‘marketplace of ideas’, differing in political ideology, funding sources and policy specialisms. Fundamentally they serve to mediate between politicians, the public (via the media), and academics.

Currently it would seem that the history discipline is underrepresented in the think tank community. For example, the résumés of the 67 resident research staff at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), reveal that just 6 hold degrees in history, with the vast majority stemming from social science backgrounds such as political science, economics, international studies, policy studies and regional studies in particular on Russia, China and the Middle East. Nevertheless, I will argue that lessons can be learnt from the successes of American think tanks which could help facilitate a closer relationship between historians and policymakers, and that the think tanks themselves could benefit from the unique set of capabilities that professional historians have to offer.


Think Tank Funding

As non-profit organisations, usually with few liquid assets and high annual expenditure on salaries, think tanks in the US tend to be financially vulnerable institutions, and consequently stand to benefit a great deal by drawing on expertise already sustained within the academy. Some think tanks were founded along with massive financial endowments, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and so are insulated a little from market shocks. For the most part, however, the ‘90s and 2000s boom in the think tank sector which accompanied globalisation was cut short by the Global Financial Crisis in 2007-8. Since then, the funding sources for think tanks have shifted markedly towards individual donors who now constitute the most prominent source of US think tank income, the rest coming from foundations, corporations and other sources. This funding squeeze has had adverse effects on several think tanks, leading them to become increasingly politicised as they try to gain political and public support, thus contributing to the polarisation of the public sphere. Andrew Rich has highlighted how donors tend to consider the media attention given to their chosen think tank or cause as a return on their investment, confusing headline-grabbing hyperbole with genuine impact on policymaking.

Drawing on expertise from academia could help mitigate these tendencies, especially where academics hold tenured positions or are on permanent contracts, as their financial stability and professional status lend them a high degree of independence. This is already happening to a certain extent in the form of some ‘non-resident’ research fellowship programs. While there are challenges with translating academic work into the language and timescales of policymakers, more could be done to engage with the reserves of expertise in the universities. History & Policy exemplifies this idea of a network of mainly established academics producing policy-relevant material fit for public consumption. Yet there will always be some administrative costs, and in covering these there is much to learn from the business model of successful US think tanks.


Lessons for Success

A closer look at the finances of a successful, mid-sized US think tank, such as the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), highlights the importance of donations relative to other sources of funding, especially when one sees the amount spent on fundraising in order to solicit these donations in the first place. Also noteworthy is the revenue from memberships, which is a tactic more common among UK think tanks, though difficult for a small organisation to make sufficiently attractive. It is surprising to see how little revenue is generated by events, with royalties and editorial services being more lucrative. The lesson here seems to be about the importance of donations, though there are complications with this funding source that are discussed below. These pie-charts are composed of data from the FPRI’s audited financial statements from 2019.




Valuable insight into the business model of think tanks can also be gained by quantitative study of their websites, specifically by tallying the tabs they display on their homepages. Applying this method to the websites of the top 30 US think tanks reveals their excellence at two things: marketing their experts and soliciting donations. 83% of this sample had a prominently displayed ‘experts’ tab which led straight to the profile photos, biographies and published works of their experts, and 80% had an even more prominent ‘support us’ or ‘donate’ tab which took visitors directly through to a money-transfer page were banking details could be entered. This kind of ruthless efficiency in marketing their expertise and securing donations must surely help account for the continued survival and world-leading calibre of the major US think tanks.

The top 30 think tanks in the UK by contrast only have ‘experts’ tabs on their homepages 36% of the time and donations tabs only 30%. One could of course argue that this is purely a matter of aesthetics, but in a world where a website is the face of a company it makes a big difference if your product, in this case experts, are one click or three to four clicks away. Efficient marketing can also be seen in the dedicated ‘press/media contact’ tabs on 40% of the of the US websites, compared with 16% on UK think tanks’ homepages. As John Tosh himself noted in his H&P article on why history matters, the real value of a website like History & Policy “lies not so much in influencing government and think tanks, as in providing material for the media and thus raising the level of public historical awareness.”

In summary, successful think tanks are highly proficient at marketing their experts and securing financial support. One lesson here is that in the competition for market share in the ‘marketplace of ideas’, people are the currency; whether government officials between posts, leading academics or other public figures, such affiliations tend to lead to recognition and influence for an organisation. In this respect yet more advantages can be seen in a closer relationship between think tanks and academics, for the universities are the fountainhead of the nation’s new intellectual talent, offering the opportunity to find rising stars early in their ascendency.


The Price of Success

However, something is also sacrificed when maximising the commercial viability of a think tank, and this can be seen in the case of one of the most financially successful in the world, the Heritage Foundation. With a largely donations-based income of around eighty-six million dollars per annum, the influence of the Heritage Foundation reaches down many a corridor in the US bureaucracy, and it has close ties with Congress members as well. But its success is largely a consequence of its strong partisan stance, with a set of conservative causes around which to rally support. One result of this is that it lacks credibility as an independent voice, and is considered more of an advocacy group than a think tank with any claim to producing objective research. While this case points to the potentially detrimental relationship between the commercialisation and politicisation of an institution, it at least leads us to reflect that in order to run a successful donations-based business it is necessary to have strong causes in which potential donors can invest.

While we can learn important lessons from the successful strategies of US think tanks, there exist some potentially insurmountable differences between the US and UK which challenge attempts at emulation. Several authors have argued that US think tanks are particularly successful because of the constitutional obsession with limited government, especially at the federal level which leaves ample room for private sector policy research. On the matter of donations, many have pointed to the more highly developed philanthropic culture in the US. Close inspection of the relevant IRS and HMRC tax regulations reveals there is a legal basis for this. The majority of US think tanks are registered charities, offering them a whole slew of tax benefits. Most significantly, donations to charitable organisations are tax deductible, so an individual’s donation can replace up to 50% and in some circumstances 100% of the income tax they owe, whereas in the UK there is a limit of 20% and this has to be reclaimed with a lot of paperwork and only applies to charities in certain schemes. The impact of these structural and cultural differences should not be underestimated. 


The Changing Value of Independent Expertise

In the marketplace of ideas, public trust is a highly valuable commodity for think tanks to have, but trust tends to vary in relation to their perceived independence. For example, academically oriented think tanks enjoy a better claim to public trust as a result of their more independent status and high standards of peer-review, whereas advocacy oriented think tanks disseminate political content that is easily popularised and thus high in the public awareness but lacking impartiality. Several of the largest Washington DC think tanks have recently faced serious challenges to their claims of independence. In 2014 an investigation by the New York Times revealed widespread investment by foreign governments in US think tanks, with the Qatari government donating nearly fifteen million dollars to the Brookings Institution, and millions from the Norwegian and Saudi Arabian governments going to the CSIS and others. The accusation was that this enabled foreign governments to guide the agenda of Congress via these influential think tanks. In an industry in which, as Frederick Kempe of the Atlantic Council put it, “our currency is our credibility”, working more closely with academics would clearly have its advantages for think tanks from the perspective of public trust. Public faith in experts in all sectors has, however, increasingly become strained in the last few decades.

Andrew Rich speaks of an ‘expert-saturated politics’, in which intense competition drives experts to become more aggressive self-marketers which invariably undermines their credibility, as the lines between expert and advocate, impartial analyst and political actor become increasingly blurred. While this climate of ‘loudest wins’ prompted Tom Nichols to question if we are witnessing the death of expertise, James McGann and others remain optimistic that in a future characterised by an ever-growing information explosion, the calm council of the trusted few will become increasingly valuable to legislators. In this respect the advantage shifts once more towards academic historians, who, while belonging to an inherently disputatious discipline have more in common than divides them and can offer an informed and factual basis on which to predicate policy debates.


How Historians Can Maximise their Impact

This brings us to consider the ways in which historians can maximise their impact in the think tank scene, in terms of when in the policy timeline they can make the biggest difference, and what historians can uniquely contribute. They have an obvious role in examining how problems came to exist in the first place and the conditions that give rise to them. They are also good at teasing out the different perspectives and political narratives that invariably accompany policy problems. And historians clearly offer expertise which is vital in helping sustain institutional memory in government departments with such high turnovers of staff that they can suffer from groupthink and institutional amnesia.

Above all, authors return time and again to the value of historical metaphor and comparison, such as in Robert Crowcroft’s article on the subject, in which he argues that scholars can enrich the policy conversation with well-chosen analogies. Crowcroft points out that the range of historical analogies currently deployed by politicians, while often instrumental in communicating and justifying policies to the public, is severely limited. Historians can offer better-suited and less over-used alternatives, as well as critical examination of the relevancy of such metaphors. Nor are such analogies merely pleasantly illustrative fluff, for there is a growing body of scientific research on the real neuro-linguistic significance of metaphorical thinking, which has been shown to have a powerful influence on perception, memory, creativity, morality and judgement. In this way, I would argue that historians can have the greatest impact on the policy debate through their linguistic introductions, in the form of their mastery of key terms, metaphors and comparisons. This is a skill well-suited to the think tank environment. As Diane Stone points out, think tanks help provide “the conceptual language, the ruling paradigms, and the empirical examples” which then become “the accepted assumptions for those making policy” when adopted and spread by the media and politicians.

It follows from this, that historians will be most influential nearer the beginning of the policy timeline, when the issues are being unpacked and the linguistic terms of the debate are set. Generally speaking, policy issues become increasingly political over time, culminating in the partisan voting of the legislature. Think tanks and their experts generally operate at the more apolitical end of the policy cycle, which is an open environment in which to identify problems, conduct research and raise possibilities. Additionally, the later in the policy cycle, the more structural forces begin to take effect in determining a policy’s content, such as the legal precedent in the United States Code and the political machinations involved in getting a bill through Congress. The lessons here are that historians can have a real impact on the policymaking process through their linguistic contributions, but the earlier they engage in the debate the better.


The Resurgence of Applied History

Lastly, we turn to consider the gradual resurgence of applied history which offers considerable validation to the arguments unpacked above, and points to a bright future for historians and History & Policy. To say resurgence implies that applied history, that is the application of historical lessons and ideas to the present, at some stage dwindled or disappeared. There certainly seems to have been a waning interest in applied history since the days of Machiavelli’s Il Principe and John Robert Seeley’s conception of history as the “school of statesmanship”, although vestiges of the assumed utility of history remain today, for instance in the structure of the Oxford history tutorial essay; geared towards training future civil servants in the art of brief-writing.

While applied history has fared much better in military institutions, it largely went out of fashion in academia for reasons discussed in John Tosh’s H&P article. However, on the back of seminal publications on the validity of this approach by Ernest R. May and Richard Neustadt in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we have seen over the last decade or so, an emerging interest in applied history among scholars and even think tanks. Starting with History & Policy in 2002 and joined by the small Applied History Network based in London in 2015, Professors Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson’s 2016 foundation of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project represents a major step in the resurgence of interest in applied history, with its own courses, a fellowship program and public seminars. One of the latest developments, in November 2018, was the launch of the Journal of Applied History by Brill publishers. The move of History & Policy back to its original home in the Institute of Historical Research was itself a recognition by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study of the significance of applied History for the public profile of the broader Humanities community.

We also seem to be seeing the first steps towards applied history projects in the think tank sector, for example in the major Washington-based think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Until very recently the CSIS Brzezinski Institute had a Project on History and Strategy focusing on military and strategic issues, and aiming to provide relevant and considered historical metaphors to Washington’s policymakers, who for want of the time and expertise often fall back on over-worn historical platitudes. A recent example of this work was a 2019 conference held at the CSIS on the topic of the suitability of the Cold War analogy in contemporary US-China relations. The significance of the discussion of these terms can ripple outwards into the media and even political speechwriting, and thus historians can have a real influence on the language and paradigms used in international relations as well as other policy areas. However, a spokesperson from the CSIS described the project as currently ‘no longer active’, a casualty perhaps of the merciless economic consequences of the pandemic on this sector. Nevertheless, there is a general trend of resurgent interest in applied history projects, and with its growing network of professional historians, it is clear that History & Policy has an important role to play.



In conclusion it seems that a closer relationship between policymakers and historians would be mutually beneficial, and think tanks offer a potential business model for such a union. Moreover, think tanks would themselves benefit from a closer connection to academia, since drawing on university expertise would help alleviate their financial vulnerability, earn them greater public credibility and connect them with the source of human capital in the marketplace of ideas. Academic historians in particular are an under-used source of expertise, and they have much to offer think tanks and policymakers through their unique powers of marshalling metaphor, framing the debate, asking the right questions and exercising balanced judgement. Historians could be most influential in the early stages of the policy cycle, and the resurgent interest in applied history seems to evidence a growing recognition of what the discipline has to offer us today. These applied history projects can look to successful US think tanks for useful insight into the marketing of expertise and solicitation of donations that it takes to survive in this competitive market, as well as the strategies of affiliation and media recognition required to grow, although there are some structural limits on the transferability of these lessons. Above all, History & Policy can rally around its cause of promoting better public policy through a greater understanding of history, a gesture visible in almost every think tank: bridging the gap between centres of knowledge and of power for the benefit of all.

Further Reading

Abelson, Donald E., Do Think Tanks Matter? Second Edition: Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes. Montreal, 2009.

Benedek, Mathias, et al., Creating metaphors: The neural basis of figurative language production. NeuroImage, Volume 90, 2014, pp. 99-106, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811913012664

Haddon, Catherine, et al., What is the Value of History in Policymaking?. Institute for Government, 2014. https://ahrc.ukri.org/documents/project-reports-and-reviews/what-is-the-value-of-history-in-policymaking

Landau, Mark J., et al., The Power of Metaphor: Examining Its Influence on Social Life. American Psychological Association, 2014. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1chs139

McGann, James G., The Fifth Estate: Think Tanks, Public Policy, and Governance. Washington D.C., 2016.

Rich, Andrew., Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge, 2004.

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