What Is an Economic Think Tank?

An economic think tank is an organization whose mission it is to study and reflect on economic issues. Economic think tanks are essentially economic policy institutes that work to develop and propose economic strategies and policies to benefit the overall economy. Economic think tanks can be publicly or privately funded, and as such can be under scrutiny for being biased towards the special interests of the donors or political factions within a government.

Key Takeaways

  • Economic think tanks are organizations that produce and publish economic research, policy papers, and other materials that deal with economic issues. 
  • Economic think tanks can be publicly or privately funded, and can focus on impartial policy analysis, academic research, or strategic communications on behalf of public or special interests.
  • The University of Pennsylvania publishes the Global Go Think Tank Index, which ranks economic think tanks annually.

Understanding Economic Think Tanks

Economic think tanks are organizations focused on economic research, policies, and issues. Economic think tanks produce economic research and publications ranging from in-depth journal quality studies to voter education pamphlets. They can range in orientation from apolitical, academic research organizations that publish original research and sponsor academic fellowships to advocacy organizations that seek to directly influence public policy and may even be explicitly involved in electoral politics.

Some economic think tanks function almost exclusively as government contractors who produce third-party analyses and forecasts for legislative committees and public agencies. Some are associated with or hosted by colleges and universities to promote their research agendas, gain access to academic talent and resources, and provide support to the school’s students and faculty. Some are funded and supported entirely by corporate, financial, or political interest groups to produce strategic communications that promote their interests with a scholarly veneer.  

Although many countries support their own economic think tanks, increased globalization has brought about a new trend in the cooperation between those of different countries. Several well-known economic think tanks are based in Washington, D.C., including the Brookings Institution; The Economic Policy Institute, which focuses on the economic condition of low- and middle-income Americans and their families; The American Enterprise Institute; and The Peterson Institute for International Economics. The National Bureau of Economic Research is based in Cambridge, MA.

Ranking Economic Think Tanks

Each year, the University of Pennsylvania conducts research to understand the role think tanks play in governments and civil societies and to examine the evolving role and character of public policy research organizations. For the assessment of think tanks, experts from University of Pennsylvania used more than 28 different ranking criteria, including the quality and reputation of the think tank’s staff and research, utilization of research and policy proposals, media reputation and digital presence, effective management, ability to bridge the gap between the academic and policymaking communities, and many more.

The university explains in their Global Go Think Tank Index that the top economic think tanks provide superior, innovative research and strategic analysis of domestic economic policy, which covers a wide range of topics, such as the money supply and interest rates, macro and microeconomics, trade and investments, and various other economic concerns that are influenced by the government. The top think tanks must also excel in research, analysis, and public engagement on a wide range of policy issues with the aim of improving the overall quality of life in one of the relevant countries.