At least nine major British think tanks will disclose who funds their research and advocacy over the coming month, marking a systemic shift towards greater financial transparency across the entire UK policy research scene that mirrors a similar, ongoing seismic shift in the United States and beyond.
According to data compiled by Transparify, the initiative I work with, UK think tanks are currently extreme outliers in terms of their financial opacity. Last time we canvassed the websites of leading think tanks worldwide, we rated over half of major policy shops in the United States as transparent. These think tanks disclose on their websites who funds them and how much each major donor gives, either by grouping givers into broad contribution brackets or - the true gold standard - by listing exactly how much each donor gave, and for what specific purpose.
In sharp contrast, in the UK, only one wonkmill we looked at, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), cleared the transparency bar in late 2014. Even worse, we had to rate three household names as "highly opaque" because they provided virtually or literally no information on who was funding their research and advocacy. Overall, the results indicated that Britain was not only trailing the U.S. by a huge margin, but had one of the most opaque policy research landscapes in Europe and, indeed, worldwide.
This is especially surprising as Britain is not a country where transparency or accountability are novel concepts, or where policy analysts live in fear of persecution by an authoritarian government. Think tanks have a long history on the islands, and are well-known and well-understood players in the polity. And the national media over the years have fielded plenty of acrimonious public debates about think tank funding, including accusations of stealth lobbying, highlighting the value of up-front transparency. Indeed, the very concept of think tank transparency ratings was first pioneered in the UK.
Hence, Transparify decided to focus its efforts on the UK policy research scene this year. In November, we'll be rating over 20 British think tanks, compared to just 11 last time around, and we'll be extending our media outreach work to all major broadsheets in the country. So far, so bad: a preliminary assessment of the think tanks we'll be adding to the study population showed that they were even worse than our old cohort. When we previewed 27 leading UK thinks tanks a few weeks ago, only one (IPPR) was transparent. On the far end of the spectrum, thirteen policy shops are highly opaque, while the remaining thirteen disappoint in a less dramatic fashion.
However, all this is set to change radically over the coming weeks. Nine UK think tanks have told us that they plan to add additional information to their websites during October alone. Three of those aspire to achieving the global gold standard in the field, a 5-star disclosure level, meaning that they will publish not only the names of their donors, but also the exact amount given by each funder, and the specific research project or other purpose each contribution was destined for. Several other think tanks report that they are planning to release more information over the coming months.
This wave of voluntary disclosure clearly demonstrates that most serious policy research institutions in the UK do not feel that they have anything to hide. As an unprecedented information about who funds whom becomes available over the coming weeks, we strongly hope that the British media will report on these relationships in a fair and balanced way, remembering that accepting donor money does not equate to abandoning intellectual independence, let alone compromising integrity.
Above all, let's keep in mind that it's not voluntarily disclosed financial relationships we should be worrying about - it's those think tanks that continue to take money behind closed doors that are the real cause of concern. Thankfully, their numbers are dwindling by the day.
Parts of this post were first published on the WonkComms blog. To keep in the loop on new developments in think tank land, sign up for email updates from Transparify and follow the initiative on Twitter and Facebook.