Think-tanks have become prominent organizations in political processes at national and international levels. They are widely praised for their capacity to conduct policy-relevant research, for their ability to innovate, and to reach out to practicing politicians. Critiques have pointed out that many think-tanks do not contribute research in any real sense, and frequently serve elite, government or business interests instead. Although the two perspectives are clearly contradictory, a comprehensive treatment of the politics of policy think-tanks can reconcile different views by way of, firstly, recognizing different types of think-tanks, and their diverse roles in particular policy communities at various stages in policy processes. Secondly, beyond the analytic distinction of different types of think-tanks, the political dimension of the knowledge and expertise produced and processed by think-tanks needs to be recognized and analyzed. A historical and social network analytical approach to study individual policy think-tanks as well as policy think-tank networks can be employed to clarify resources relevant to think-tank knowledge production, inter alia specific academic, political, corporate or ideological backgrounds, in addition to qualities and contributions of the expertise disseminated by think-tanks. This is demonstrated by way of revisiting, firstly, the deregulation battles in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and secondly, some of the environmental policy battles of the recent past. In each case think-tanks were or are prominently involved in various constructive and destructive policy efforts, and can be observed playing powerful and sometimes critical roles not necessarily in conjunction with the academic quality of the knowledge they help to advance. A critical approach to think-tank politics and the recognition of the political character of knowledge in turn can improve policy deliberation and decision making because of the efforts involved to advance greater transparency and accountability of policy actors on the one hand and the critical understanding of knowledge resources on the other hand.
In deliberation-minded and civil society-oriented scholarship, think tanks are relevant because of their constructive role in policy-related knowledge generation. They are held to establish and enable expertise from diverse stakeholders and multiple angles, and to successfully feed the policy process. The environmental policy field, in general, and climate change mitigation especially, allows additionally for the observation of a less benign and wider range of roles and functions for think tanks across multiple conflict constellations. Conflict theoretical and power-sensitive approaches implicate the need to relate think tanks – in agnostic ways – to the political struggles of competing discourse coalitions that frequently rely on problem-solving research, as well as destructive strategies of ‘knowledge shaping’ and ‘strategic ignorance’. The current vitriol in climate change mitigation debates cannot simply be attributed to the abuse of science and fake news. Evidence points to a far-ranging transformation of the ‘global knowledge power structure’ in which policy think tanks have come to play an increasingly important and ambiguous role.
This chapter examines the interplays of economic and epistemic power through a historical reconstruction of entrepreneurship ideas in management and economics and a historical social network analysis linking intellectuals and think tanks to foundations and corporations. With a focus on ideas, concepts and storylines, this study helps shed light on the intellectual and ideological origins of modes of thinking - and the ways of life based on them - that have become invisible or taken for granted. Although the continuing relevance and even the existence of neoliberalism are doubted by many, entrepreneurship discourses have become increasingly influential in contemporary society. This chapter illustrates how the original conception, or rather revision, of entrepreneurship ideas and their promotion by neoliberal intellectuals and think tanks preceded the diffusion of entrepreneurship ideas via business schools and consulting companies. This was followed by the subsequent universalization of entrepreneurship discourses and related arrangements in media and society, respectively: from social security regimes (activation, self-responsibility, and so on) to entrepreneurial universities on to charity and philanthropy (social entrepreneurship, eco-entrepreneurship).