[Outlook]Time for think tanks

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[Outlook]Time for think tanks

The think tank that made Barack Obama the new president of the United States is the Center for American Progress, established in 2003. The think tank that produced the George W. Bush administration was the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, established in 1982.

A think tank is a group of talented people who set values and goals that they believe will advance the development of their country and their society. Such organizations employ people who will work to realize those values and help to get them into public policy.

In our society, people are also familiar with the term “think tank.” The two think tanks mentioned above have political affiliations, but other institutions that Koreans often hear about, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution in the United States, are nonpartisan and don’t align themselves with specific political parties. They conduct studies on policies that are necessary for the sustainable development of the U.S. and respond to current affairs. They are all private research institutions.

In Washington, D. C. alone, there are 150 think tanks of all sizes. Some handle general public policy while some specialize in national security, global strategy, strategic weapons, the environment, world peace or studies of specific regions.

Experts who prefer more dynamic work - work that gets them directly involved rather than just lecturing at universities - usually gravitate to such institutions.

In the course of democratization, Korean society was revitalized through civic movements. The state was too rigid and had little communication with society, and civic activists wanted to break the inefficiency of the status quo through social movements. People with experience as former student or labor activists served as major driving forces. As a result, experts or activists, not citizens, were at the center of these movements. At the time, the expression “a civic movement without citizens” was coined. This was a typical characteristic of Korean movements.

This phase ended and now there are too many civic organizations. Some have been transformed into political groups or groups of people who want to take power, while some have remained innocent civic organizations.

However, looking back at the developmental stages of Korean society, it is doubtful that this type of drive for change is still effective in a democratic paradigm. Now, rather than staying in the social movement stage, it is necessary to gather talent who will search for more mature, appropriate alternatives for social development and make them topics of debate in society.

It is not good that experts still wander about in the social movement sector. They should be enhancing their competence and presenting solutions to difficulties that seem impossible to overcome. If experts and laymen talk about the same things, our society will not develop, and our future will not be bright.

Think tanks are appropriate places for experts to work on enhancing the competence of civic society and developing the way our country works. Social development must now be pursued through thought and research instead of yelling. Then, our development engine will grow stronger. In a knowledge-oriented society, creating knowledge and enhancing competence are keys to rising to the top of international competition.

In the United States, from an early stage, the administration didn’t govern the country on its own. The competence of private think tanks has long been integrated with the state, and both sides produced talent and developed policies. Also helping are renowned universities that are competitive on the global stage.

Our society is also searching for ways to ensure that it is not the government alone that is running the nation, but that other sectors of society also participate. The problem is that such entities are not yet competent enough.

State-sponsored research institutes have been given the role of think tanks but they have revealed many problems with efficiency and fairness. Private companies’ research institutes’ primary goal is to pursue their own interests. Therefore, we need fair research groups that work in the interest of the nation and the people, and think tanks can play that role.

Think tanks need more support from public foundations and companies. The government should integrate and streamline state-sponsored research institutes and induce private think tanks to compete against one another in drawing up good policies.

Now is the time for us to become interested in creating good think tanks for the future of our nation. This is the right way to contribute to a society that is based on knowledge and creativity.

*The writer is a professor of constitutional studies at Seoul National University.

by Chung Jong-sup
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