Do Think Tanks Really Think? Or Do We Just Think That They Think?

Do Think Tanks Really Think? Or Do We Just Think That They Think?

BY David Alan Grier Posted: 2 Mar 2015

The Case of Advanced Manufacturing

The joke is an old one in Washington.  Think Tanks don’t really think, it begins, but they can produce a really great study arguing that thinking would be a truly great idea.  I had the opportunity to test this hypothesis during the first week of last month.  I had been invited to a presentation on Advanced Manufacturing at one of the oldest and perhaps most staid of the Washington Think Tanks, the Brookings Institution.  I accepted the invitation, as I felt that the topic was too little discussed in the capital.  I hoped that they might have something new to say about the subject.  Too often, every Washington discussion of technology makes the same three recommendations: Tax breaks for companies that invest in technology, more funding for Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) education, and a stronger culture supporting innovation. 

When the day of the Advanced Manufacturing presentation finally arrived, I had to make a hard choice.  I was facing many deadlines that day and really couldn’t afford to spend two hours listening to three researchers read their report.  I quickly scanned the notice of the meeting to see if there was anything that might suggest that the presentation was going to be interesting.  Instead, I found that researchers were young writers who had little experience.  There was nary a book, a Senate confirmable job or a marriage to a Kardashian among them. Still, I was about to give them the benefit of the doubt and head towards Brookings when I saw that they had posted their report.  It ended with the usual three recommendations: Tax Breaks, STEM funding, and Innovation Culture.  Relieved, I returned to my computer.  This was not going to be the day to see if Think Tanks could really think. 

Think Tanks have an odd position in the policy landscape.  They do research but they are not universities.  They argue that the government should support certain goals but they are not lobbyists.  They all claim to be non-partisan but no one quite believes them.  (The Brookings Institution, the host of the Advanced Manufacturing meeting, is generally perceived as left of center socially and right of center economically.)  Finally, I suppose I should note that they hold lots of lunch meetings but they aren’t restaurants. 

Think Tanks are actually some of the central institutions of the national policy debate.  They hold regular events that are designed to educate.  The attendees at these events are usually young Congressional aides.  These aides usually have the job of trying to learn about some issue or bill that is currently before Congress.  The Think Tank events are places where they can learn more about the issues as well as meet other Congressional Aides who may be of use in the debate.  It is also a place where they can get a free lunch.

Link many a Think Tank event, the Brookings presentation on Advanced Manufacturing can’t really be viewed as an isolated activity, any more than a single conference paper can be viewed in isolation.  You need to understand the context in order to grasp the message of the event. 

Advanced Manufacturing is not a new idea in Washington.  It has been discussed in the city for most of the past 25, the work has never been very focused nor led to any substantive action.  The discussion has begun with the simple but not carefully defined idea that advanced manufacture is a form of industry that uses high technology to deliver goods and services.  Furthermore, this discussion has included that advanced manufacturing is good and that the U. S. Government should do something to strengthen Advanced Manufacturing industries. 

In Washington D.C., nothing is every accomplished by a single person.  You need a group, a coalition, to support an idea.  Over the 1990s and 2000s, a number of organizations started talking about the value of advanced manufacturing.  These organizations included trade associations, union representatives, and think tanks. Among the participants were the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO, and the Brookings Institution.  Eventually, this group got the ear of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology or PCAST as we call it in Washington. 

PCAST is a collection of scientists, engineers and business people who write reports for the President.  These reports suggest how the president should approach some issue such as bid data, or nanotechnology or advanced manufacturing.   It might be nice to think that these reports tell the president what steps to take and then the president takes those steps.  However, that view is entirely too simplistic.  These reports are starting points for a discussion.  They present a series of issues and then the Washington community get to add their ideas to the mix.  This is the point where Think Tanks start to engage the process. 

The first PCAST report on Advanced Manufacturing appeared in June 2011.  Two more have appeared since.  The most recent one was published in October 2014.  All of them have been somewhat vague.  The 2011 report defined Advanced Manufacturing to be “a family of activities that (a) depend on the use and coordination of information, automation, computation, software, sensing, and networking, and/or (b) make use of cutting edge materials and emerging capabilities enabled by the physical and biological sciences, for example nanotechnology, chemistry, and biology.”  The two subsequent reports neither added to nor subtracted from those words.  They merely continued to explore the topic as if everyone understood the nature of Advanced Manufacturing.

The Bookings Report on Advanced Manufacturing is a response to the first PCAST report and may have been scheduled to coincide with the release of the most recent report.  It seems clearly designed to strength the work of PCAST and to make it more rigorous.  Instead of taking the PCAST definition of Advanced Manufacturing, it proposed the idea that Advanced Manufacturing company, or an Advanced Industry, invested heavily in Research and Development and had a highly skilled workforce.   Specifically, it defined an Advanced Industry to be in the 80th percentile or higher of R&D spending per employee and have a greater percentage of workers than the national average who were educated in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, the STEM skills. 

From its clear and concrete definition, the Brookings Report impressed upon the reader that Advanced Manufacturing was in dire straits and needed to be addressed.  It argued that the United States was no longer the leader in this field, that the country was importing more goods from Advance Manufacturing than it was exporting, and that it was falling further and further behind other countries in this field.  The paper was so vivid, so frightening, that it would convince even the most casual reader that we must act and act quickly. In the end, though, the careful definition did not change any conclusions. The paper recommended the three obvious ideas. We need to give tax breaks to encourage investment in Advanced Manufacturing.  We need to expand STEM education.  We need to build a culture that supports innovation.

While the Brookings Institution can recommend, it cannot act.  It can only think and encourage others to accept its thoughts.  If there were to be action, it would probably come in the form of legislation.  At the moment, there is only one bill in front of Congress dealing with Advanced Manufacturing.    It would offer tax cuts to companies that invest in advance processes.  So far, it has seen little movement.  It has progressed no farther than the desk of the House Clerk.  

This bill, like everything else in Washington, shouldn’t be viewed in isolation.  It may be part of a bigger effort to promote Advanced Manufacturing that will become clear with time.  However, that effort will be the work of many parties.  The White House might promote the idea.  The trade associations will articulate what they want and unions will lend their support to any idea that gives jobs to their members.  Finally, the Think Tanks will have to think some more, but in thinking, they will not really be weighing the pros and cons of the issue.  They will be making the case, firmly and forcibly, that some action would be a truly great idea.

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David Alan Grier is a former president of the IEEE Computer Society and is an associate professor at the Center for International Science and Technology Policy of the George Washington University.  

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Chris Brantley
In my experience, it is also helpful to understand who is funding the research project of interest at a Think Tank. Some Think Tanks are little better than "guns for hire" and even esteemed think-tanks have put out reports prompting calls of bias toward their funder's policy agendas.
Posted on 3/3/15 4:09 PM.