Research Director, Grupo FARO
Q: From your experience of doing research and participating in discussions on the subject of the relationship between Think Tanks and Universities, could you share with us what you see as the main differences between Think Tanks and Universities?
According to findings from the research project “Más Saber América Latina: potenciando el vínculo entre think tanks y universidades”, in which I participated, there are several differences between think tanks and universities, some of which include:
- Different focus: universities are focused on producing new research, in a wide array of disciplines, with theoretical emphasis; think tanks seek to generate policy-applied research or connect existing evidence to policy applications.
- Different quality measures: universities measure research quality in terms of number of research products published in indexed journals, with peer reviews as the control mechanism. Think tanks measure research quality in terms of research’s potential for policy influence, where the control mechanism is the social accountability of the knowledge generated by the organisation.
- Different areas of work: universities, especially in Latin America, have focused their activities in the professionalisation of students, and rare cases to research activities. Think tanks are focused in producing policy-applied research, influencing policy and in some cases also conduct capacity building activities.
- Different internal organisation: universities’ internal organisation responds mostly to disciplinary specialisation and is more bureaucratic and permanent than that of think tanks; meanwhile, think tanks are organised under multidisciplinary, flexible schemes, with teams formed to respond to topics and functions required by projects.
- Different human resources realities: universities have human resources that are, for the most part, dedicated exclusively to university work (teaching and researching, in the cases that the university has a research focus); personnel in think tanks are usually dedicated to various projects (sometimes in various organisations) and frequently perform temporary work, which produces high rotation among think tanks’ staff.
- Different allies and connections: universities are used to focusing their attention on the private sector and the labour market. Meanwhile, think tanks pay attention to the media, civil society organisations and the political-bureaucratic arena; moreover, think tanks have closer relationships with these sectors than universities and are savvier on political-strategic communications to promote policy influence.
- Different power sources: universities’ power resides on the monopoly of the provision of professional degrees and titles. Think tanks’ power resides on their capacity to influence policy and mobilise civil society groups.
- Different modes of knowledge production: universities’ model of knowledge production is closer to mode (1) of knowledge production, which is more hierarchical, disciplinary and targets the interests of the scientific community. Think tanks’ model of knowledge production is closer to mode (2) of knowledge production, which is more horizontal, inter or trans-disciplinary, produced in networks, and with focus on the context of its application.
- Different sources of funding: universities are often funded by public funds and increasingly by the demand of professionalisation in the market of students. Think tanks are funded by international donors, private funding and occasionally by public funds.
Q: What are the main differences in the type of research undertaken by Universities and the Think Tanks? Are these differences significant across the three regions of Africa, South Asia and Latin America?
A:Research undertaken by universities is generated to promote theory development, without necessarily considering its practical implications, on a diversity of disciplines and with the explicit purpose of achieving publication in an indexed journal; meanwhile, research undertaken by think tanks is produced with a practical perspective and an explicit intention of generating evidence that can inform public policies and is concentrated on public policy-related topics.
According to the final report of the studies on think tank-university relationships conducted in parallel in Africa, South Asia and Latin America, these differences are significant across the three regions. However, it seems that the universities in all these regions are becoming interested in policy-relevant research, which could impact think tank–university collaboration in both ways: producing increased complementarity between them or promoting increased competition.
Q: What distinct strengths and value addition do these two kinds of institutions bring to a collaboration?
A: Collaborations between think tanks and universities can profit from the perspective and know-how each type of institution brings to the table. Universities can add value through their disciplinary expertise and their wide access to specialised professionals, their availability of human capital (students and teachers), the possibility of connecting research efforts to more academic, theoretical research, and the opportunity of developing training courses around the topics researched. On the side of think tanks, these organisations add value to a collaboration through their practical perspective, their connection to communities and local realities, their resourcefulness and ability to produce research with limited resources, their links to key actors in the public sphere (media, state, civil society organisations, citizen groups, etc.), and their knowledge and strategic capacities to promote policy influence.
Q: In the social space, what do you see as potential drivers for collaboration between Universities and Think Tanks?
A: Potential drivers of collaboration between these institutions are:
- The existence of people in common between the institutions. This happens when universities and think tanks have flexible arrangements that allow their personnel to work both in a think tank and teach at the university at the same time. It also happens when there are spaces (policy networks, learning communities, professional associations) that promote social interaction and exchange between professionals from both types of organisations.
- An increased demand for public-policy applied research will certainly generate interest in both types of organisations. This can be helpful to promote collaboration when funders of these efforts value and require collaborative project proposals.
- The existence of policy networks that invite professionals from universities and think tanks to discuss ideas and debate policies.
Q: What comes in the way of effective institutional collaboration between Universities and Think Tanks?
A:Effective institutional collaboration is blocked by:
- Bureaucratic systems, especially on the side of universities
- Competition for human and financial resources
- Different focuses and incentives: incentives for researchers in universities are incentivised by the recognition generated by publishing in an indexed journal; meanwhile, researchers in think tanks have as incentive the recognition of the public sphere and colleagues for achieving a certain degree of policy influence.
- Scarce demand for research: in some contexts, the public sphere does not demand or does not welcome research creating a poor environment for knowledge generation.
Q: Could you share with us an example of an effective collaboration between Universities and Think Tanks?
A: In the study “Más Saber América Latina: potenciando el vínculo entre think tanks y universidades”, an initiative in Perú, Seminario Permanente de Investigación Agraria –SEPIA stood out as an effective collaboration between Universities and Think Tanks. SEPIA is a network of researchers that originated from a series of informal seminars held in the late seventies in Peru at a time of great social and political upheaval around the issue of land and rural reality. The promoters of the initiative were interested in connecting research produced in universities, which were promoting a revolution in rural studies, to the concept of “new rurality”.
All this in a context in which public universities were going through conflict and intense infighting between different political groups, had very traditional teaching programmes, limited research infrastructure and an inexistent culture of promoting the public debate of ideas. SEPIA constituted then a non-profit civil society that promotes research and debate around topics of rurality, environmental and agrarian issues from a plural and multidisciplinary perspective. These efforts are materialised in: (1) bi-annual seminars that gather experts (from Universities and Think Tanks) with diverse backgrounds and that take place in different parts of the country each time through the collaboration of a public university and a civil society organisation in the territory; (2) the production and publication of a book that compiles research presented at the bi-annual seminars; and (3) the involvement of young researchers through a fellowship programme that finances small research projects.
This collaboration is effective as it is has been in place for more than 30 years, continues to generate concrete products and interest in the research community (both in Universities and Think Tanks) and has created a space in which researchers from different backgrounds, disciplines and organisations get together, discuss research and policy implications of it and generate ideas for collaborations beyond this space.