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DISCUSSION PAPER

An ethical framework for think tanks: Easier drafted than done?






Research and Innovation / DISCUSSION PAPER
Fabian Zuleeg

Date: 02/09/2020
Developing and implementing an ethical framework for think tanks is crucial to make the sector more accountable, transparent and (financially) sustainable.

This framework must start from the recognition that independence lies at the heart of think tank credibility. Think tanks must have access to different funding sources, create adequate governance structures and be open and honest about their operations; they need to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach, acting as a bridge between a wide range of actors in the policy process. At the same time, think tanks should be mindful of equality and diversity concerns, ensuring that their operations are not biased towards, or by the lack of participation of, specific groups.

Imposing ethical guidelines top-down will not have the desired effect. Instead, it is the organisations themselves that should develop the framework, and adhering to it must be incentivised rather than mandated. Furthermore, the implementation mechanism should be designed in such a way that it rewards those organisations that stick to the rules while creating disadvantages for the ‘bad sheep’.

European think tanks should also consider that there is strength in numbers. The establishment of a ‘European Think Tank Centre’ or ‘European Alliance of Independent Think Tanks’ could be an important step in building up capacity. It could lobby on behalf of the think tank sector, for example with EU institutions, not only regarding funding but also to protect think tanks from commercial or governmental interference. It could even potentially develop a methodology for ranking a think tank’s impact and adherence to the ethical principles outlined above. The Alliance could also create the forum and be the ‘pen’ for the ethical framework’s further elaboration, thus initiating the co-creation of the framework within the sector and ensuring a much greater buy-in.

How think tanks go about their business matters to society. They can support democracy by providing policymakers with recommendations and innovative solutions based on evidence, or undermine it by deliberately manipulating policymaking and public opinion. To maximise the impact and success of the ethical framework, doing the right thing – and be seen doing so – should be turned into a competitive advantage for think tanks.


This Discussion paper is part of the European Commission-financed PRO-RES (Promoting Ethics and Integrity in Non-Medical Research) Project, which aims to support evidence gatherers, researchers and their funders with the resources they need to ensure their work is conducted in a fair, transparent manner, and that all create an ethical research framework that applies to both academic and non-academic research. At the core of this project is the Accord, which is a statement of broad principles that organisations can sign up to, including a commitment to only use research that is undertaken ethically.



Read the full paper here.
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