What Is a Think Tank?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2019
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A think tank is an organization which is dedicated to research and discussion of problems facing society. As a general rule, these organizations tend to come up with possible solutions as well, and they may engage in education and advocacy to get members of the public interested and involved in issues of concern. These organizations can be found all over the world, focusing on a wide variety of issues including the environment, technology, poverty, law, foreign policy, economics, education, military issues, and so forth, and many of the world's brightest minds are involved in them.

The slang term “think tank” for the brain arose in the early 20th century, with the use in this context arising around the 1950s, although the concept of gathering bright minds to think about issues is much older. Often the staff is quite large and ideally extremely diverse, with the goal of coming up with innovative solutions and approaches to a variety of issues. Many organizations offer policy suggestions and the means to implement them, leading some people to call them “public policy organizations,” and they are also referred to as “policy institutes.”


Funding for think tanks comes from a variety of sources, and this is sometimes a topic of controversy. Some are non-profits, relying on grants and generous donations from members of the general public who are interested in the cause of the organization. Others are actually funded by special interest groups or governments, and critics of the think tank system have pointed out that certain sources of funding could compromise the integrity of the group.

Staff tend to be highly educated, and they are very accomplished in their fields. In a think tank which focuses on environmental issues, for example, the staff will include a cross section of people trained in environmental studies, ensuring that when the group comes up with suggestions they will be valid and accepted by the wider environmental community. It is not uncommon for the organization to employ lawyers and economists to contribute to their discussions about social problems, as most solutions require money and involve legal issues, so addressing these potential stumbling blocks at the start can be a very good idea.

Many think tanks become extremely prominent in their host nations and abroad, and while they can only make public policy recommendations, their recommendations are often enacted into law. The work of such organizations in the realm of public awareness can be extremely important, as it gets people thinking about public policy problems and ways in which they can potentially be addressed.


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