[Viewpoint] Who are thinkers in the tank for?

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[Viewpoint] Who are thinkers in the tank for?

This syndicated column, Pinoy Viewpoints, is one of the projects of the Philippine Resource Persons Group, or PhilRPG, a young group of Filipino professors, who have previously taught, or are currently teaching, at Korean universities.

In one of the organizational meetings that led to its inception, it was suggested that the PhilRPG would serve as a “think tank” for the Filipino community in Korea.

A number of colleagues within the group, this columnist included, were daunted by the notion. Indeed, the think tank label demands a lot of responsibility, which can only come from a genuine sense of integrity.

Think tanks are institutions that advise or seek to influence mainly government actors in the area of political and social policy making.

The term think tank is a figure of speech, a visual one, that has eked its way into the technocratic circles of power.

The original think tanks were groups in the military that advised the generals and field marshals in war strategy. The think tank, as an entity, sits well today in an age of outsourcing in order to stay lean and mean.

Because of their expertise, the end-users would wisely choose not to maintain their own think tanks but to hire these presumably expensive groups on a project-to-project basis instead.

The “in-house” institutions of governments, international organizations (including the United Nations) and large corporations are maintained as separate bodies altogether, which adds to their credibility and image of independent thinking.

The services of think tanks are tapped in the course of making decisions that require deep, extensive research and all the methodologies that come with research - including but not limited to consultation, data-gathering, advocacy, policy dissemination and pilot monitoring. Because of this, university professors are common fixtures on the rolls of these organizations.

In a reverse fashion too, there are a lot of former think tank executives who eventually end up in academics. Think tanks are also a favored parking ground for those who have retired from government service or business/industry captaincy. Clearly, the technology in these institutions would be person-borne, and they are players in what has come to be known as the knowledge industry.

Most of the problems referred to them would have a broad impact on society. Thus, an ability to network across societal classes and international boundaries is a desired characteristic when choosing which think tank to hire.

Of course, included in the group’s network would be their own clients and patrons. Although most of these institutions are operated as non-profit organizations (or cost centers), there are a number of professional consulting groups, with steep prices to boot, that have joined the fray.

In studying think tanks, public administration scholars have debated widely as to whether think tanks are biased or independent thinkers. Those who are pro-bias argue that because think tanks must come up with or advocate some specific position in the end, they are by their nature biased.

This view points the finger at think tanks that are created solely to be advocacy groups, for example on family planning or climate change issues.

And indeed, think tanks in this category will have started with a position that comes before their tasks. Woe then to any studies or research they might generate that supports the opposite stand!

For some think tanks, autonomy and independence of thought is ensured by their principals and creators by spinning them off as a separate organization altogether. But even then, what is to protect them from boardroom maneuvers and political plays by their patrons?

Ideally speaking, we can only count on the axiom that scientific research must always be unbiased in its investigations and experiments if true knowledge is the objective.

Another enduring debate regarding the phenomenon of think tanks is pluralism versus elitism. The pluralist notion comes from the nature of the issues and problems referred to think tanks, which often have a broad impact. Because policy making in governance will affect a wide spectrum of people, it is usually preceded by a consultative exercise with the people who are bound to be affected by the policy under discussion.

It can be surmised that this is the reason NGOs and grassroots people’s organizations have found themselves in this theatre. The information generated from consultation, however, is pushed upwards eventually to lead to policy crafting.

And it is at the top where the genuine market of ideas exists, where the conflicting notions are debated, and where the decision in favor of one or another is made.

Clearly, while the methodologies of data-gathering are designed with pluralist or populist intent, the final scene is acted out by the elite legislators or governors and their equally elite experts.

Now, how these policy makers and advisers made their way into the corridors of power should probably be questioned vigorously by the people they claim to serve.

If we are to accept this default notion that the ultimate think tank activity is elitist, amidst the doubts that think tanks can truly be independent or autonomous as they generate new knowledge, who is there to police the think tanks?

There may come a day in the not so distant future when ombudsman institutions might be created to regulate the think tank industry. Who knows? The people whom they serve must valiantly watch them, of course, but populist action characteristically takes a long time to simmer.

And this is why think tanks themselves must responsibly and zealously protect their integrity.

*The writer is a professor at the Grad-uate School of Pan-Pacific International Studies at Kyung Hee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Manuel Dioquino

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