Building a strategy

The Dollars and Sense of Ethical Practices in Think Tanks

By 05/03/2015

There are many ways to think about ethical practices in think tanks, but whether the thoughts turn into actions depends on whether the organization has the leadership, appropriate staffing and systems, and financial resources to adhere to the highest standards of transparency and accountability to a range of stakeholders.

My short presentation at the Think Tank Exchange 2015 covered some of the ways in which funding affects the ability of an organization to adhere to ethical practices. It was not intended to offer a comprehensive view of either ethics or funding, but rather to start a conversation about the relationship between the two – and perhaps stimulate thinking within think tanks about changes they might want to make in their relationships with funders. I am not an expert on ethics, but in my work at the World Bank, the Center for Global Development and now the Hewlett Foundation, I have significant experience making sure that the amount of money available matches the requirements to do the best work. I made two points:

Point 1: While some ethical practices should just be embedded in the daily business of an institution without any marginal cost, others require resources, often at a level above what a funder normally would provide.  Actions that are resource-intensive can include, among others:

  • Doing institutional reviews to protect human subjects when the researcher is collecting data from individuals.  Few (if any) think tanks have this capacity in-house, so it has to be obtained from a university, contract research organization or other source, and sometimes that costs money. Funders will pay for this if it is made explicit in the proposal budget, rather than included in an “overhead.”
  • Sharing findings with individuals or communities that participated in the research.  Increasingly, feedback to research participants is (and should be) considered part of the job of an investigator. Few funders will spontaneously add the money and time to a project budget to do this, although they may if they are prompted during the proposal and grant or contract negotiation phase. There is a good case to be made that this advances the goals of funders.
  • Documenting and sharing data.  Providing data for reanalysis is part of a larger transparency mandate that mitigates the risk of falsifying results or other unethical practices. It is, however, both labor-intensive and may require resources for storage of microdata.

These are just a few of the practical aspects of ethical practices that take person-power, time and money. Items like this can and should be included in project budgets, and efforts can be made to educate funders about why they are essential expenses. It is crucial that they are not aggregated into an overall “overhead” line item, because they are then likely to be short-changed.

Point 2: Funding practices can bias research, and/or create the perception of bias.  Think tanks have to be very conscious of potential reputational risks, and establish institutional policies that mitigate these. Examples of potential risks include:

  • Funding that limits the scope of study.  Most think tanks receive funding for specific projects and/or programs of work, so by definition these exclude alternative – and potentially more socially important – ways to use time and expertise. It is possible that funding opportunities – or the lack thereof – will limit an organization’s ability to pursue topics that are aligned with its mission. However, some funders place limits on the scope of their study that should be seen as overly constraining. For example, if you are working on a study of the affordability of essential medicines and are prohibited by the funder from examining the impact of intellectual property regimes in the pharmaceutical industry, the study will be incomplete and potentially misleading. There are ways to deal with this – either by seeking complementary funding or by recasting your study so that it will provide a comprehensive analysis within the limits placed – but you need to have an open discussion within the institution about how to handle such constraints without compromising the integrity of your work.
  • Driving toward particular findings. A more troubling version of the problem above is when funders have an affirmative agenda that they wish to support with the research you are undertaking. There’s no question that some funders of policy research have advocacy goals in mind, and consequently have a view about what they want the research to find.  It’s “policy-based evidence-making” rearing its ugly head. If this cannot be resolved during negotiation of the project, then it is incumbent on the think tank to refuse to take the money.
  • Limiting publication of findings.  Some funders require prior review and reserve the right to limit publication.  Obviously researchers can reject funding that carries these strings, but large sources of finance for developing world think tanks place these constraints on organizations. Each institution must decide for itself how to handle this issue, preferably long before it arises in a specific case. It is wise to have a written policy, rather than developing ad hoc responses when there may be pressure to accede to the request because of a particular researcher’s interest in getting a project funded and/or taking a contract.
  • Seeking an overly aggressive push on policy outcomes. Related to the problems above, some funders may use – or be perceived to use – think tanks as a route to influence policy for self-interested reasons. This was the accusation in last year’s unfortunate situation with CGD, in which the New York Times reported that Norway appeared to be buying access to Washington policymakers, seeking a particular policy action related to deforestation.  No wrongdoing was found, but it’s never a good thing when researchers’ motives are questioned. Having a system of institutional vetting of funding relationships is essential; these decisions cannot be left to individual researchers because of the implications for the organization’s reputation. In addition, think tanks are wise to include explicit statements about the researchers’ independence in grant agreements and contracts, as well as on websites, brochures and other written materials.


My conclusion to the session was simple, although I invoked some of the hardest things for a think tank to do.  The three-part vaccine that helps think tanks adhere to the highest ethical standards:  strong leadership, core funding, and diversified funding.


by Ruth Levine, Program Director, Global Development and Population Program, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation