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20- Academics at Think Tanks

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20. Academics at Think Tanks

John Blundell, Distinguished Senior Fellow, the Institute of Economic Affairs



The interface between academics and wannabe academics and the think tank world is both potentially very rich and potentially hugely problematic.


Our typical academic goes from grade school through the undergraduate and graduate school years, maybe a post-doc, and then the tenure process and finally the full professorship. It can—it does—take a couple of decades, and at each stage the potential synergies change. Let’s take a walk through each stage.


Undergraduate: Opportunities start to open up for you as an undergraduate. In my two decades as head of one of the leading think tanks in the world, London’s Institute of Economic Affairs, I accumulated many memories of really stellar young students. Intern, write, learn about the ideas, prepare yourself for grad school. Other sections in this guide can give you more advice in these areas.


Graduate School: Here the dynamics start to change. Now you are very firmly on possibly several professorial radar screens. I have knowledge of departments that have made life unbearable for graduate students who have been working for or published by free-market-leaning think tanks. Equally, I know of departments that positively welcome, encourage, and even reward such involvement. And I’ve known departments which are ideologically neutered or maybe balanced: neutered in the sense there is no pervading climate of opinion—balanced in the sense they have one of every “ism.”


So the choice of program starts to influence what’s on and what’s not.


This is also the point at which your choice of dissertation will hugely affect your usefulness (or otherwise) to the policy community. I think I can safely say that an economist with some tax and growth model will be more in demand than an archaeologist—even though I know of one of the latter who writes great stuff about why digs do better when privately as opposed to publicly funded.


And then you need to think about where the dissertation will appear: as a bunch of journal articles, as a university press book, as a trade book, or as a think tank book. That list goes in descending order of importance for most wannabe academics! In some “academic” circles, think tanks are equal to vanity publishers—as in paid-for and therefore not worth a darn thing. I once heard a professor call think tanks a cancer on the academy.


Tenure Track: This is very similar to graduate school—it really does depend on what the department wants from you. If they want publications in the top twenty journals, teaching, and departmental service, then your brilliant policy paper for some think tank won’t win brownie points. It will probably even lose you some votes. Be careful.


Tenure: So now you are tenured. It is interesting to note how many professors on gaining tenure feel themselves much freer to go into more policy and think tank type areas. In the life of the classical liberal academic, there is often a dip in think tank interest as they navigate the final stages of the Ph.D. and tenure and then a surge as they reach the latter.


So what is going on? I think the two main broad veins are these:


• Academics address tiny audiences; by publishing the “accessible to the layman” popular version of their work I risked being hugged and told, “You made me famous!” as I was on several occasions.


• On the other hand, think tank entrepreneurs like me know a great deal about who is doing what and are able to write immediately for the less academic, more popular and accessible market, and we can thus step in and shortcut matters; we can propel an academic to the forefront of debate because we have one foot in academia and the other in the policy world. We act as a bridge. We platform the academic. We are the springboard into a much wider, more prominent role.



One final point: Not all think tanks are the same as to where they position themselves in the war of ideas. Some are much more “academic,” while others are much closer to the coalface of politics. Some target the intellectuals who create the climate of opinion, believing like Hayek and Keynes that the politicians will follow. Some write books and monographs; others do shorter papers. Some use outside academics to review manuscripts, while others do not.


This last observation is quite important. At the IEA, we use a double-blind outside review process, and all manuscripts go to at least two experts. The author is not told their names, and the experts are not told who the author is. This means the IEA monograph can appear under the heading of “Refereed Publications” on the CV. And the refereeing process does improve the product.


I have worked with thousands of academics and hundreds of think tanks all over the world. To close this article I asked myself who has done the best job of combining a serious academic career with think-tankery. Many great names came to mind from Milton Friedman and George Stigler, whose “Roofs or Ceilings?” was published by the Foundation for Economic Education in September 1946, to F.A. Hayek, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Axel Leijonhufvud’s classic IEA papers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But I kept coming back to Dr. James, who is the professor of education policy in the Department of Education at the U.K.’s Newcastle University. Over the past two decades, he has flawlessly built a great academic career, a serious list of think tank publications, and even his own think tank, the E.G. West Centre.


He has won huge international prizes and acclaim and done very serious media work. His IEA monograph The Global Education Industry became the Cato Institute’s The Beautiful Tree. Penguin then picked up the rights, and The Beautiful Tree went to number one on the nonfiction bestseller list in India and won the 2010 Sir Antony Fisher Memorial Award from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. The Beautiful Tree really is the model for any ideas-oriented young person to read: it is original, beautifully written, insightful, exciting, jaw-dropping, scholarly yet accessible, eye-opening and mind-changing. Buy it, read it, study it, and learn from it.



John Blundell is the distinguished senior fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he was director general from 1993 to 2010. He is a past president of the Institute for Humane Studies, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. He is author of Waging the War of Ideas and Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady. He serves on the boards of IHS and the Atlas Foundation and is writing a book on the 25 women who have done the most for liberty in the history of the  United States.


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