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Some facts about the history of the «think tank» phenomenon

"There are hundreds of such organizations, with thousands of groups each year working to solve dozens of thousands of problems. These non-polluting factories got the name "think tanks". Like many general names of this kind, the name "think tank" oversimplifies the essence, but nevertheless it is the best term that characterizes institutions of a unique type ... ".

(Extract from Paul Dixon's book "Think tanks", 1971)

Today the term "think tank" is the term of common use and is widely known not only among the specialists, but also to a broad spectrum of people. All kinds of reference books and encyclopedias, including electronic ones, repeating and duplicating each other, inform inquisitive users that a "think tank" or "brains trust" are public institutions that advise on state and corporate contracts, usually in the field of political production and assessment of the possible socio-economic consequences of political decisions. Applied political expertise, research and analytics, as well as fundamental theoretical works are the intellectual products of these organizations. As a rule, it is distinguished by strategic goal-setting based on certain ideas about the desired social-economic and political results. This allows politicians and society to make decisions based on the information provided by these institutions. This is the difference between the products of "think tank" and academic studies.

Without claiming to be original, let us share information about the history of the emergence and development of this analytical institution and phenomenon, using and summarizing the materials widely presented on the Internet.

"Think tank" was given rise to in 1832, when the USA Secretary of the Treasury, who was tired of the constant explosions of boilers on steamers, turned to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia with a request to study this problem. Since then, the US government has spent increasingly large sums on expert communities, working on its orders.

For the first time the expression "brains trust" was used by the American journalist Allen White on March 21, 1903. In his article in the Saturday Evening Post, he described the US strategic and long-term planning problems and called to the United States to urgently compensate for its gap to Great Britain on such a significant issue.

Indeed, by the beginning of the twentieth century, in the United Kingdom, there were several influential centers for creating solutions in a wide range of humanitarian disciplines: Politics, Economics, Law, Sociology and Military Affairs. Thus, back in 1831, the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI) was created in Great Britain, designed to provide training for the current British military servants and officers who felt the need in systematic learning of the latest professional experience. Since 1857 RUSI began to publish its own scientific and analytical magazine, raising and discussing such aspects as war and defense. RUSI still exists today.

The first organization claiming to become the political "think tank" was the Fabian Society, founded in London in 1884 (it still exists today). British economists George Cole and John Maynard Keynes, writers Bernard Shaw and Herbert Wells, philosopher Bertrand Russell were among the Fabians at different times.

These were the Fabians that formulated the principles of modern "think tank" by the beginning of the twentieth century - independence and objectivity of thoughts, an analytical and balanced approach to considering any facts and trends, nevertheless, - following a once-chosen plan of the desired development leading to an "ideal" future perspective.

The US elite took full advantage of the historic opportunity at the beginning of the 20th century. It is not known whether the article written by Allen White influenced the American businessman Andrew Carnegie, but on May 11, 1903, A. Carnegie drew a one-and-a-half-a-million-dollar cheque for construction of the Peace Palace in Washington. As a result, in 1910, the first American "think trust" was formed, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is now the oldest think tank in the United States.

In 1916, businessman and philanthropist Robert Brookings founded the Institute for Government Research in Washington. Later, he founded the Institute of Economics and the Robert Brookings Graduate School, which dealt with such relatively new disciplines at that time as Economic Research and Management Organization.

Robert Brookings was sure that the results of the work of the created "brain trusts" would bring not only commercial benefits, but also be useful to the government. In 1927, all the three research organizations were merged into the Brookings Institution, which continues its successful work today.

By the 1930s, more than a hundred of state and non-state think tanks were operating in the United States, and the definition "brain trust" itself became common after a specially selected group of advisory professors, who developed the economic and political program of USA at the time of Great Depression, presented it to the candidate for presidency - F.D. Roosevelt and to a great extent ensured his victory in the elections in 1932.

The term "brains center" became a catchphrase at the suggestion of the American journalist James M. Keiran, who, named the group of Roosevelt's advisers in that way in an article published in New York Times. After that, any community of experts began to be called a "brains trust". There is an interesting fact, that during the Great Depression in the United States, the Brookings Institution criticized Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policy. This is probably one of the first known facts of competition between "think tanks".

The Second World War gave a great impetus to the development of "brain trusts", which caused a hudge amount of tasks requiring quick scientific research and solution. Zetetic readers, we refer to the book written by Paul Dixon "The think tanks", although it was published half a century ago, but, in our opinion, has not lost its relevance today. In this book, examples of the global tasks solution by American "think tanks" in the military sphere are widely presented. In the United States in particular, a significant group of civilian scientists and engineers have been mobilized to participate in the war in the "technology field". In a short time, this group has created such innovations as radar and influence fuze. A new analytical method - operations research - was also developed and improved, and successfully applied to improve the effectiveness of air defense (radar policy), bombing and naval operation.

Nevertheless, the second half of the 20th century became the "classic century" for the "think tanks". It was the global confrontation between the two world superpowers, the USSR and the United States, that led to the explosive growth in the number of "brain trusts". But such a term, as well as the concept of "think tanks" was not used at that time in the Soviet Union.

In the USA, a new stage in the development of "think tanks" was largely associated with the successful implementation of the RAND Project. At the end of the war, when the mentioned above collective of civilian scientists and engineers, "who fought in the technological field", began to disintegrate, the defense department decided to keep it in order to continue military technology development in the peacetime. As a result, the commander of the aviation of the American land forces, General H.H. Arnold suggested an agreement between the Air Force and the Douglas aircraft company. After the suggestion was approved by the highest political circles of the United States in 1946, under a contract worth $ 10 million, a unique experimental institution was created as a division of the Douglas firm, called the RAND Project. The abbreviation RAND was first composed from the first letters of the words Research and Development. But when the project developed, it became clear that it was almost exclusively a research institution. Therefore, they began to say, and not only as a joke, that this abbreviation is more consistent with the words Research and No Development.

The first major development of the RAND Project was the Preliminary Design of an Experimental Spacecraft Orbiting the Earth. Despite the fact that artificial satellites at that time were considered the property of science fiction, RAND gave a detailed assessment of the prospects for the use of scientific satellites and space exploration. The study proved to be prophetic. So, when in 1957 the expected date of launching the first artificial satellite into Earth's orbit was announced, then, as it turned out later, the Project experts were mistaken by only two weeks.

Successful research has seriously strengthened the prestige of RAND. In order that theoretical research not to be limited only to the exact sciences, new specialists in Politics, Economics and Psychology began to participate in the project. In 1948 there was a demand to separate RAND from the Douglas company. One of the reasons for the "separation" was the fact that despite the actual isolation of "RAND" from "Douglas", the project staff were obliged to obey the rules and regulations of "Douglas", which regulated everything, including where and when to drink coffee and annoying "Rand Thinkers". As a result, by mutual agreement in 1948, RAND left the Douglas corporation and continued its activities as an independent structure (RAND Corporation).

The RAND experiment was successful. Firstly, it was possible to save the talented research team created during the war. Secondly, the defense department received at its disposal a creative apparatus of such a scale and capabilities that it would have been impossible to create in any other way under no circumstances. The corporation RAND provided long-term theoretical research in a variety of areas, and these recommendations could not be developed in the offices of official state agencies, whose employees adapted their thinking to everyday needs and solving narrow issues. It also became apparent that an organization like the RAND Corporation is more manageable and administered than any university based research center.

In the post-war period, the corporation became the main model for dozens of organizations involved in the development of new technologies and political issues. The RAND Corporation is now one of the most famous and most influential "think tank" in the world.

In general, by the end of the Cold War, only in the USSR and the USA, about a thousand of analytical centers were created, ¾ of which were American and ¼ - Soviet. At the same time, American "brain trusts" were mainly non-state organizations associated with political parties, business, and only a small part of them officially received state funding and became state agencies. On the other hand, the USSR built its own unique system of "think tanks" that hid under the masks of various higher educational institutions and research institutes, but whose profile included all the same goals and objectives of analytical support and development for strategic decisions for the country's top leadership.

This led to the subsequent imbalance in the number and orientation of American and European analytical centers on the one hand and Soviet (Russian) ones on the other. American and Western European analytical centers have traditionally been considered strong in the fields of Sociology, Economics, Political Science, and Mass Psychology. The Soviet (Russian) school of analytics has always been strong in the military sphere, strategic planning and intelligence department.

Despite the negative consequences inherited from the "roaring 90s", when many Russian "think tanks" lost their methodology, data collection channels, and a qualified personnel, modern Russia has managed to overcome difficulties in the analytical sector. The number of Russian "think tanks" in the international ranking is increasing every year, and their role in determining the country's strategic course is increasing.

The general tendency for foreign think tanks today is a shift in the orientation of activity from exclusively analytical work towards direct assistance in solving a number of problems that most often are the subjects of social policy. However, speaking about the possibility of using positive foreign experience, it is important to take into account that:

  • not every experiment (even one that ended with a positive result) is worth being repeated;
  • the main audience of "think tanks" is primarily high-ranking politicians, and not the people on the whole;
  • active real-political activity (independent implementation of the created projects) of the "think tank" should not overweigh its internal research work.

At the same time, some of the principles of the Western "think tanks" can be adopted:

  1. One of the main "keys to success" of think tanks’ activity is the ability to find a balance between scientific activity and active public position.
  2. The need for constant active participation of experts from "think tanks" in the development and maintenance of electoral campaigns.
  3. Possessing the own presentation strategy - the ability to transform any analytical material into a final consultative product that can not only go directly to the customer, but also be presented and published in open sources.
  4. The need of the "think tanks" to have its own mechanism for promoting developed products (own publications, Internet sites, using the capabilities of social networks, instant messengers).
  5. "Vibe" as a success formula. As example it is possible to give an extract from the book "Think tanks" by Paul Dixon.

... In 1921, Arthur Deon Little, one of the founders and the Head of the Arthur D. Littlelink Corporation, decided to make a personal contribution to the development of American philosophy, reducing to ashes one of the tenets of traditional wisdom, in which, in his opinion, there was no imagination at all: "You can't make a silk purse out of a pig's ear."

First, 100 pounds of pig ears were purchased from one of the Chicago canneries. These ears were then turned into a adhesive material, reminiscent of the viscous liquid produced by the silkworm. After that, employees of the corporation dissolved this substance in water and, adding a small amount of acetone, got a gelatinous mass. To speed up the solidification process, chromium alum was added. Then the mixture passed through a filter with 60 holes about 0.001 inches in diameter. The resulting fibers were placed in acetone and formaldehyde curing solution and. After drying, the fibers became brittle and gray, but after they were washed in a glycerin solution and dyed, they acquired elasticity and a smooth surface. With the help of a hand-loom, these threads were woven into a silky fabric, from which a wallet was then sewn. Today this wallet can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the firm founded by A. Little, as in therein, is one of the leading enterprises in the research field and solving various problems sphere...

In the modern world, the leading states are making every effort to create a highly effective mechanism for preparing, making and promoting decisions on key issues of international activity. Such mechanisms has collegial nature, characterized by the involvement of many subjects of foreign policy, and rely on both analytical developments and significant scientific expertise. "Think tanks" operate in almost all states and have proved their effectiveness over more than a century of existence.

The new global information world of the XXI century brought the countries of the Third World to a completely new level; they received access to equal conditions of knowledge and technologies. This factor, as well as their demographic and resource potential, will cause changes in the world in the very near future. India, the countries of Southeast Asia and even Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are successfully moving towards repeating the Chinese success in creating "think tanks".

Since 2009, the University of Pennsylvania in the USA has been conducting annual research on “think tanks” around the world. Based on the results of the work, reports are published with lists of leading centers in the world as a whole, as well as for individual regions and areas ("The Global Go To Think Tanks Report"). The ranking over 2018 year confirms the indicated trend (www.repository.upenn.edu).

Considering the global influence of "think tanks" on socio-political, economic and other fields, today many experts classify them as the so-called "fifth estate" (after the legislative, executive, judicial and media power).

However, when discussing the future of think tanks, one may wonder whether they will become another victim of the global political transformation, people's distrust of all kinds of institutions in general, or will they find new meanings and forms of existence. The answer to this question is open, although the discourse is already have been conducted. Zetetic readers, we refer to an article published in November 2018 in International Affairs by Robin Niblett, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, entitled Rediscovering a sense of purpose: the challenge for western think-tanks www.chathamhouse.org.

In the meantime, according to the metaphor sited in the 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, "brains trusts" are a bridge over turbulent waters and turbulence.