Skip to main content

Thoughts About Think Tanks: Are They Biased?

What Is a Think Tank?

We've all heard of think tanks, but many people don't know exactly what think tanks do and what their influence is over public opinion and policies. A think tank is an organization that conducts research and attempts to influence public policy in many different areas including business and finance, economics, education, fiscal policy, defense, security, technology, science, foreign affairs, health and science and political strategy. There are think tanks all over the world, but the United States has by far the most – a whopping 1815 think tanks with 14.66 trillion dollars being poured into these idea factories. Think tanks have a huge influence over public opinion and policy – after all, that is what they are meant to do. Their work is constantly quoted by the media. Think tanks have so much influence that they have even been called a “shadow government”, and some have been implicated in conspiracy theories.

Are Think Tanks Biased?

All think tanks promote themselves as being non-partisan, but beware – that doesn't mean that they are non-biased. Non-partisan simply means that they have no formally declared association with any political party, but they can still be quite biased. For example, the conservative Heritage Foundation states openly that it's “mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense”. Other well known think tanks such as the Brookings Institution claim to carry out independent research, implying that they are unbiased.

But are any think tanks really unbiased? According to, most research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders. Many are non-profit orgnanizations funded by major foundations, businesses and private donations, some are funded directly by governments and special interest groups, and some are funded to do work on a specific particular mandate. In the article “You Gotta Serve Somebody: the author states that that think tanks are part of a political competition between interests and ideological groups because ideas about policy are weapons in that battle. This makes think tanks inherently political and non-independent.

Because of the enormous power and influence held by think tanks, the public needs to be made aware of any obvious bias of a think tank, and also the bias that is most likely occurring from the funding behind the think tank. However, many think tanks are tax-exempt 501(c) corporations, and as such do not have to divulge their funding sources. A Politico Article concerning this - “Strengthen Think Tank Accountability” - states that many think tanks are rife with ethical conflicts, and that think tanks should disclose their donors.

There have been complaints that when the media quotes a study or report from a think tank, they don't warn the viewer if the study is from a conservative or liberal organization. The truth is that if Fox news is quoting something, it's more than likely to be from a conservative think tank such as the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation. If MSNBC is quoting from a study it could well be from the liberal leaning Center for American Progress. I thought it might be useful to list the top 10 most influential think tanks as listed in the Global Go To Think Tank Report of 2011, along with their most commonly determined bias.

Think TankBias

Brookings Institution


Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)


Rand Corporation


Cato Institute


Heritage Foundation


Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


Peterson Institute for International Economics, FNA Institute for International Economics


American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI)


A Closer Look Behind the Scenes

I noticed that many of the top 10 think tanks were considered centrist, but as I mentioned before, it should be questioned if any of them are truly unbiased, or if the funding behind the organization bends them in a particular direction. When I looked into the funding of the most influential think tank in the USA and in the world, the Brookings Institution, I found the Carnegie Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AT&T and Microsoft listed in the Annual Report as donors, but I don't think this is a full list. The web site states that “Generous individuals, foundations, leading corporations, and U.S. and foreign government agencies that share our commitment to quality, independence, and impact in public policy research and analysis support Brookings with financial contributions and intellectual engagement.”. Failing to find a full list of donors, I decided to take a look at who is in charge behind the scenes, which would be the management and the Board of Trustees. For management, you have Strobe Talbot serving as president. Talbot was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton Administration. But let's look at the board members, whose “role is to provide governance of the business and affairs of the Institution, approve the fields of scholarly investigation, and safeguard the independence of the Institution's work”.

Co-Chairman of the Board - John L. Thornton, former president and co-CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Co-Chairman of the board - David M. Rubenstein – The Carlyle Group - Note: The Carlyle Group has been the source of much controversy because of it's role in the Iraq war, and the connections to Bush Sr. “The Iron Triangle”, a book by Dan Briody, was written about the “secret World of the Carlyle Group”. Rubenstein is Listed as the 138th wealthiest man in the world by Forbes magazine in 2011. His Net worth 2.8 billion. He took the billionaire pledge.

Vice Chair - Glenn Hutchins – Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Silver Lake (A private investment firm)

Vice Chair - Suzanne Nora Johnson – The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.

Other board members include:

Shirley Ann Jackson Ph.D.


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


Benjamin R. Jacobs

Senior Advisor/Founder

The JBG Companies


Richard A. Kimball Jr.

Chief Strategy Officer

Accretive Health Inc.


Klaus Kleinfeld

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Alcoa, Inc.


Philip H. Knight


Nike, Inc.


Nigel Morris

Managing Partner

QED Investors


James Murren

Chairman and CEO

MGM Resorts International


Thomas C. Ramey

Former Chairman

Liberty International, Liberty Mutual Group


Steven Rattner


Willett Advisors LLC


Edgar Rios

Co-Founder and Managing Director

Wenzi Capital Partner


James Rogers


Duke Energy


Wilbur Ross

Chief Executive Officer

WL Ross & Co. LLC


Haim Saban

Chairman and CEO

Saban Capital Group, Inc.


Victoria P. Sant


The Summit Foundation


Leonard D. Schaeffer

Founding Chairman & CEO



Peter Scher

Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Responsibility

JPMorgan Chase & Co.


Amy W. Schulman


Lynn Thoman


Leon Lowenstein Foundation


Andrew H. Tisch

Co-Chairman of the Board

Loews Corporation


Beatrice W. Welters

Founder and Co-Chairperson

AnBryce Foundation


John H. White Jr.

President and CEO

Taco, Inc.


Tracy R. Wolstencroft


Heidrick and Struggles


Daniel Yergin


IHS, Inc.


IHS Cambridge Energry Research Associates


Lei Zhang

Founder and CEO

Hillhouse Capital Management


Daniel B. Zwirn

Managing Partner

Zwirn Family Interests, LLC


Even though Brookings states that “The Board is composed of distinguished business executives, academics, former government officials and community leaders”, it seems to me that there is a glaring, hugely disproportionate number of business executives. This is not to say that Brookings does not do highly regarded work, or that they pander to those business interests. It is merely to point out that even the most highly respected, most influential think tank in the world needs to be closely looked at for some possible bias. It seems naïve to think otherwise.

So What Do You Think?

© 2012 Margaret Perrottet


Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 21, 2014:

Scroll to Continue

Sanxuary - you bring up a great point about polls being biased, and I agree that the questions tend to point people in a certain direction. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such an interesting comment!

Sanxuary on July 20, 2014:

I always find think tanks and polls to be bias. They always steer the questions on their terms to specify the answers they wish to give to the survey. We never participate in the surveys and seldom know who they even asked. A simple experiment of passing a question or a message around proves the point. Each person must copy the message and pass it on. At the end of the line the message is never the same. Even odder is breaking the surveyed into groups by sex, income, political affiliation and who knows what on a simple questionnaire. By the time the commander of the light brigade got the message it said conduct a suicide charge through three defensive lines and take out the cannons. No one could believe what happened next, not even the enemy and very few survived but they got the canons.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 11, 2013:

Peggy W - Thanks so much for reading and for sharing. I agree that they should be more transparent with their funding.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 10, 2013:

Hi Margaret.

Very interesting subject! I agree with Au fait's comment completely. For every think tank conclusion there is an opposing think tank conclusion. People need to evaluate the different results and views before making up their mind. Some think tanks are probably (at least in the beginning) more well intentioned than others. As to the would be wonderful if that was more transparent. Up, useful, interesting votes and will share.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on March 25, 2013:

Rajan jolly - Thanks so much for stopping by and reading this. I appreciate the votes and the share!

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 24, 2013:

Considering the fact that the think tanks are funded by an external agency it is bound to be biased. There is no getting away from it. Of course the public should be made aware of the people funding the think tank.

Very interesting hub.

Voted up, interesting and shared.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on March 14, 2013:

Au fait - thanks so much for your astute comment, and it does seem that the guy with the gold makes the rules. Always glad to see you stop by - thanks for the votes and the share!

C E Clark from North Texas on March 13, 2013:

This is a very instructive hub with information everyone should know.

Personally, I don't think there is a living person that is not biased. Everyone is influenced by everything around them (whether they realize it or not), friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, media, and in some cases personal experience which is antidotal at best, but given a lot of weight by the person who experienced it just the same.

You have to know that the guy with the gold makes the rules. Most people who want to keep their job and whatever lifestyle they've become accustomed to as a result of that job, will sing the company song on que (or the financier(s) of the think tank, in this case).

Voted up, UI, and will share!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 31, 2012:

g-girl11, seems like most of the things that influence our opinions can be traced back to money these days. Thanks for reading!

g-girl11 on July 31, 2012:

I really appreciate the research you put into this hub and your "behind the scenes." When considering a think tank's conclusion, it probably (like so many other things) can be traced back to the money!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 25, 2012:

I agree with you, pagesvoice. I think that they should be required to reveal their funding. Thanks for commenting and voting.

Dennis L. Page from New York/Pennsylvania border on July 25, 2012:

After reading your article and answering your questions, I voted this up, useful and interesting. I applaud your effort in laying out a great Hub for your readers. Personally, I do not believe so called think tanks should have a tax exempt status. Additionally, in order for the public to make informed decisions, we need to be given all the facts and that includes the hidden agendas behind think tanks.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 24, 2012:

Thanks for the kind words and taking the time to comment, Gamerelated.

Gamerelated from California on July 24, 2012:

mperrottet, I really like your Hub. I voted it up and as interesting. I particularly liked your title. I thought that it was a nice play on words. I also liked that you took that extra step to research the board members and what they did. In the end all Think Tanks and any institution for that matter have people that are a part of them. Those people are usually biased. I think it is logical to examine its people when examining the institution. Good work.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 18, 2012:

Thanks for the feedback, Randy, and sorry you got banned from the forums.

Randy Godwin from Southern Georgia on July 17, 2012:

Hello mperrottet--Since I am banned from HP forums I thought I would answer your forum post here. You may delete this post if you like after reading it. Your hubs are well written but you may want to break the text blocks into smaller sections as it's easier on the eyes when reading on a monitor. Other than that, your hubs seem okay. Welcome to HubPages!


Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 03, 2012:

Thanks for taking the time to read through this, mecheshier.

mecheshier on July 02, 2012:

Wow, what a Hub. You really did your homework. This is an area I have yet to research. Thank you for sharing. Voted up for useful.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 02, 2012:

Thanks, wrenfrost56 - it was interesting for me to write about it, since I didn't know that much about the subject until I delved into it.

wrenfrost56 from U.K. on July 02, 2012:

Really interesting and well written hub, a topic I have not come across on here before either, which is always a nice surprise for me as I like to learn new things. :)

Related Articles