U.S. and German think tanks in comparative perspective.

VerfasserBraml, Josef

Part 1: Theoretical and Practical Focus

"Will Germany's market-place of ideas ever resemble America's?" pointedly asked the Economist (2004, p. 29), highlighting Germany's pressing structural problems: "When a nation has produced Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, it seems safe to say that thinking deeply is among its strengths. But when it comes to reflections of a more practical nature, the German way of generating new ideas fails to reach the desired level of output." The Economist's observation was right on the mark, and it put the finger into Germany's open wound: Already from the hands-on perspective of then Federal President Roman Herzog, Germany's challenge is not so much to identify and understand its problems ("Erkenntnisproblem") but to translate this knowledge into practical action ("Umsetzungsproblem"), as the Bundesprasident gave as a reason for Germany's "reform block or stalemate" ("Reformstau") in his speech at the opening of the Hotel Adlon on April 26, 1997 (Herzog, 1997, p. 87).

1.1 Think Tanks' Relevance

The subject of think tanks and their appropriate role(s) has gained increased attention in the Federal Republic of Germany; especially since reunification, political practitioners as well as academics have identified think tanks as a priority on their public and research agendas. Research institutes in the German Democratic Republic have been examined by the Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat), and suggestions have been made of how to apply their academic contributions to the political system of unified Germany.

Moreover, the standards applied when reorienting and redefining the mission of those formerly ideologically tainted institutes in the New Lander to be compatible with the changing cultural, institutional, and legal environment of unified Germany have also become a point of reference and orientation for those organizations that were already operating within the framework of the Old Lander of the Federal Republic of Germany. Two long established and mainly government funded institutes, the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWA Institut fur Wirtschaftsforschung) and the ifo Institute in Munich, were especially concerned with these evaluations of the Science Council, because it recommended that they be cut off from the public funding scheme. This fate could only be averted by the massive intervention of the respective state governments of Hamburg and Bavaria. While these institutes did not vanish under this challenge, they had to readjust or reinvent their basic mission. Furthermore, as it became clear in many interviews for this study with other think tank managers, the example of the HWWA and the ifo Institute have obviously sent, if not shock waves, then at least some clear signals throughout the German think tank landscape and triggered debate about the appropriate roles of think tanks and the evaluation thereof by the Science Council.

The political issue of think tanks gained some additional importance because the overall evaluation of the scientific landscape in Germany coincided with the government's reduced budget flexibility resulting both from a global economic recession that had hit the whole European continent and the specific German challenge of reunification. In this context, the question of the most effective and efficient use of limited governmental resources has become acute. Not surprisingly, from a popular perspective, think tanks have become an easily identifiable target: While their access to public funding is well known, well publicized and often criticized by the media, many German think tanks' output and contributions are less noticeable in the public arena. In light of shrinking government funds, and the limited potential for government funding, the raison d'etre of think tanks has come under scrutiny, and think tanks increasingly see themselves in a situation where they have to (re)define and articulate their roles if they are to survive.

In a speech at the SWP, then President Roman Herzog rhetorically asked, "why is it that in the U.S. think tanks' roles are regarded as a commonplace, while in Germany they are still considered to be a luxury?" (Herzog, 1996, p. 25; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, p. 4). This and related statements in later speeches by the German Federal President on behalf of think tanks have resonated especially well with those who view the American way of doing (think tank) business as a role model.

1.2 Comparing U.S. and German Think Tanks

In his final chapter--with the indicative title "(K)ein Vergleich" (Compared/Beyond Comparison)--Winand Gellner (1995a) states that German think tanks do not compare very well with their U.S. counterparts. However, his main argument suggests that think tanks play equivalent and comparable functions in these two culturally and institutionally distinct settings, allowing for a crosscultural analysis of think tanks. Comparing U.S. and German think tanks from an institutional macro perspective, Gellner has empirically laid the groundwork by describing the different cultural and institutional factors in the U.S. and Germany that account for national differences in think tanks' organizational patterns and strategies. Empirical results of work by Diane Stone (1996), Stone et al. (Stone, Denham, & Garnett 1998), R. Kent Weaver and James McGann (2000a) based on the analysis of a variety of distinct settings, organizational patterns and strategies, suggest similar conclusions and provide a solid institutional basis for this analysis. (1)

Building on the evidence from these broader assessments from the institutional macro-level of think tanks' entrenchment within their respective environments, it seems promising to look at think tanks' world from their organizational micro perspective and to discern how their organizational behavior represents an attempt to cope with and impact on their environment. Looking at the institutional, legal, funding, labor, technological/media, intellectual, and increasingly competitive think tank environments from different think tanks' organizational inside-perspectives, one can gain valuable insights into the organizational sociology of think tanks. Adding those micro aspects inside--and from the inside--of different think tanks to the institutional and cultural macro analyses, one can hope to add some additional perceptions and aspects to the existing body of think tank literature.

1.3 Research Questions

What causes think tanks' different organizational and strategic patterns and how does it influence their behavior? These questions guide the research design. Even though "there is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas" (Popper, 1968, p. 32) and posing new questions, there are at least two criteria, beyond individual preferences, of determining the likely value of a research project: It should both pose a question that is important in the "real world" and should make a specific contribution to identifiable scholarly literature (Shively, 1990; King, Keohane & Verba, 1994, p. 15). While there is enough evidence of practitioners' concern about specific shortcomings within German political culture, it also can be argued that the academic discussion, empirical analysis and evaluation of think tanks' role and contributions have--with a few exceptions (Gellner, 1995a; Thunert 1997)--been so far neglected in the German academic literature. To be sure, there exists an extensive body of related work within the Anglo-Saxon research community. However, the pluralistic view, that there is intense competition among think tanks for "dollars, scholars and influence," is mainly focused on the U.S. experience (McGann, 1995; Rich, 1999, 2004). While think tanks' resources have been deemed important in order to explain the dynamics of the U.S. marketplace of ideas (Rich & Weaver, 1998), a systematic approach to study these issues from a comparative cross-national perspective has not yet been undertaken.

A seemingly promising approach is the conceptualization of a model that analyzes the differences in think tanks' environments, and more specifically, the impact of these distinct environmental forces on think tanks' competitiveness and potential influence on the process of public policy making in the two different countries. Thus, a systematic comparative analysis promises to better explain the "politicization of expertise in American politics" (Rich & Weaver, 1998), because a comparative perspective provides a good point of reference from which to (a) better discern distinct factors that are accountable for this development, and (b) from which to identify some alternative ways and means in order to cope with this trend. Likewise for the German context, this comparative analysis may provide a frame of reference from which to see the distinct framework conditions of German think tanks and better understand both the restrictions and opportunities provided by think tanks' distinct environments. A systematic analysis of think tank behavior based on case studies is possible and forms the cornerstone of this study. Two major hypotheses serve as the main foundation upon which the model and conception of this research are based.

1.4 Testing Two Main Hypotheses

  1. Despite a clear trend of internationalization, think tanks remain nested in their institutional, legal, funding, labor, media, intellectual, and increasingly competitive think tank environment(s) and employ different and changing strategies to cope with and impact their changing marketplace(s) of ideas and resources.

  2. Moreover, not only from a cross-national comparative perspective, but also within a given national environment, (different types of) think tanks are settled in their distinct niches in the marketplace(s) of ideas and resources.

In order to test the validity of the first argument, it is necessary to falsify the null hypothesis that think tanks in the two different countries have the same perceptions...

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