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Research 'Think Tanks' Have Notable US Policy Role

One of the very first think tanks, and still one of the most prominent, is the RAND Corporation
One of the very first think tanks, and still one of the most prominent, is the RAND Corporation

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Jeffrey Young

Washington D.C. is filled with research organizations -- so-called "think tanks" -- that span the political spectrum and range from neutral to strongly ideological.  Some specialize in specific topic areas, such as in social problems, economics or defense.  All provide opinions on policy and aspects of governance. These think tanks also house officials from previous administrations who often return to government when their political party comes back in power.

Washington, D.C., like many other national capitals, is a city filled with opinions -- and research -- on nearly every topic one could imagine.

Many of these opinions are put forth by the scores of research organizations that make their homes here.  
These organizations, which some people nickname think tanks, are an integral part of the Washington process of examining issues and arriving at policy decisions.

One of the very first research organizations, and still one of the most prominent, is the RAND Corporation.  The name is a short form of the term "research and development."

RAND was created in the aftermath of World War II.  Media Relations Director Jeffrey Hiday, says the term think tank goes back to that era.

"The idea that [RAND] is a place where people were 'putting their heads together' and thinking," noted Hiday.  "And, coming up with ways to shape the world, and to improve the world. [Think tank] was a term that was used with RAND early on, but it is actually a term that we are not quite as comfortable with today. We very much try to call ourselves a 'research organization.'"

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is now with a research organization in Washington called the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  He describes it as a collection of scholars, former government officials, and people who are interested in public policy -- and who write on public-policy issues.

"We have foreign policy experts, national defense experts, health care experts, [and] macro-economic policy experts," explained Bolton.  "In the case of AEI, you name a public policy issue [and] we have people who are working on it.  And we write this [these research reports] for decision makers in Congress and the Executive Branch - or, corporations, unions, opinion leaders in the media."

Ambassador Bolton's description fits many Washington research organizations. But some specialize on specific issues -- such as the Middle East, immigration, or drug policy.  And there are others which have strong ideological or political viewpoints, through which they frame their examination of the issues.

While similar research organizations can also be found in other world capitals, Georgetown University Public Policy Professor Mark Rom says they are bigger, and more prominent in the United States for a couple of reasons.

"We have a longer history of social science research [in the United States compared to many other countries], so we have lots of people doing the kinds of policy work that can influence government," noted Professor Rom.  "We have a for-profit sector that is willing to fund think tanks. So, think tanks tend to be fairly well funded here, perhaps by international standards. And again, our Constitution allows people to petition the government.  So, think tanks can say 'We think you should do this. It would be a good thing.' And, that is constitutionally protected.'"  

While providing political decision makers with research information is a common activity among think tanks, some go beyond that role and advocate a particular side or perspective to an issue.

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