Tomorrow, I am invited to speak at a luncheon with some twenty policy fellows of the Open Society Foundations-Armenia and Counterpart International in Yerevan.
Many of these individual researchers – some academic and others eyeing more pragmatic policy research – are toying with the idea to create a think tank. Below, you will find a selection of the questions I prepared for our discussion. The first batch refers to the dilemmas individual researchers might have (and their potential collaborative engagement in think tanks), that a very snap overview of challenges think tanks face in central and Eastern Europe and specific section for newcomers. All suggestions for additional questions / aspects are welcome. Please use the comment section here.
Sample of questions to be tackled during the luncheon
Questions on the minds of individual researchers
- How to balance academic research with policy analysis? – Individual juncture on choosing a career path or ill-made decision based on few facts and plenty of assumptions
- The pros and cons of going ‘solo’ or joining a specialized research organization ( think tank)
- Third alternative: Could other types of organizations add value to research and be ‘unusual allies’ to individual researchers?
Current challenges of existing think tanks
- Quality of current policy research usually fails to match the demand for solutions. The reasons for this situation range from inappropriate research design and methodology to poor writing skills, from choosing effective formats for their policy analysis to neglecting proper communication strategies. Why it is easier for think tanks to be ‘recycle bins’ than ‘idea generators’?
- Human capital is the biggest asset of each and every think tank. In securing reliable and high-quality researchers, think tanks compete with much more powerful competitors i.e. governments, state agencies, private companies, banks and consulting companies. As a small part of civil society, despite being present in the public life, think tanks are not the first choice to fresh graduates who are interested in embarking on research/policy careers. Likewise, for people working in the think tanks, notwithstanding that monetary remuneration is important, it is crucial to have opportunities to grow professionally and further develop their skills, to learn new things and meet other colleagues across the continent and beyond. Why think tankers do not starve, but few of them are there to earn ‘big money’?
- Policy research is only a fraction of the work within a think tank. If not paired with effective communication and advocacy strategy, even the best policy research would lead to naught. Likewise, a think tank not paying attention to its organizational development and governance structures cannot maintain its relevance and production for long time.
Challenges for think tanks – new comers
- While the field for policy research is open for new entries, embarking on such a journey is an uphill struggle. Donors and policy makers are most often skeptical, risk-averse bunch. Having a successful analysis / product in hand (even done for free) is an asset like no other.
- Good education, even at the most prestigious universities in the world is a great investment. But it is only that: an investment. For every person who wants capitalize on that investment by utilizing one’s competence within a new think tank, all of those have to be translated in a work product.
- Undertaking policy research and conducting the accompanying communication and advocacy is usually a team effort. Loners are welcome, but usually could make a breakthrough only if supported by a competent support team.
- For starters, research the topic that you know best!