Think tanks and the politics of collaboration
Campus Review, August 02, 2010
Article by Bruce Muirhead (CEO, Eidos Institute)
Universities are the breeding ground for ideas. Think tanks are the perfect way to get them mobilized, writes Bruce Muirhead.
The term think tank is a particularly vivid paradox. Thinking is intangible. Lightweight. The human brain is said to have the processing capacity of 0.1 quadrillion instructions per second. In other words, thoughts breeze in and out of our minds at a rate too rapid to even conceptualise. A tank, on the other hand, is a weapon. A solid, heavy weapon designed to batter its way through barriers and obstacles with ease.
A think tank thus fashions a thought as a weapon.
Continuing to talk in the language of paradox, there are some who would argue that the term collaborative research occupies a similar space. Stereotype dictates that the process of academic research must be a lonely and isolating one. The image of the nutty professor locked alone in his room full of books has had a powerful hold over popular conception, fostering the notion that genius research and epic revelation come from some place deep within the individual psyche, not to be shared or shaped by consultation.
Merging these two apparent paradoxes together, by rights, should be a disaster. In reality however, progressive collaborative think tanks such as the Eidos Institute, which seek to link previously disparate and freestanding universities and research institutes in the name of collaborative research, are building momentum and power off the increasing need for connectivity between public servants, academics and the private sector. In an environment which favours innovative networking and amplified transparency of the policy process, these new-wave think tanks are rapidly becoming major social agents and key players on the Australian political scene.
In a global marketplace where the interface between private and public is breaking up and relationships between universities and industry are continuing to evolve to new and varied heights, a healthy atmosphere of competition between universities is only to be expected. But in order to use the ideas growing within these institutions as a force for informing public policy and institutional change (the ‘tank’ component of think tank) there is clear strength in numbers and collaborative partnership.
If ideas are artillery, the more the better. It’s a proposition which Howard understood very clearly during a 2007 federal election fought heavily on the ideological battleground of climate change, effectively mobilising a number of leading neo-liberal think tanks to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the public regarding the effect and implications of the greenhouse effect. The Australia Institute, a think tank from the left of the political spectrum, was heavily involved in exposing the links between neo-liberal think tanks and the fossil fuel industry. But, it was too late. The seed for climate change skepticism had been well and truly planted within both the frames of the political mechanisms and the public at large. It is a powerful idea which continues to germinate and stall any real progress on climate change.
It is typically accepted amongst political pundits that in the realm of think tank political warfare, the conservatives have the upper hand. Author of New York Times best-seller, Don’t Think of An Elephant, George Lakoff captures this very clearly within an American context through the concept of moral framing. If you’re an adherent to a liberal mindset, he argues, the best way to show you’re a good person is to help as many people as possible. You spread your funding around to as many organisations as possible. The conservative framework, however, places the defence and maintenance of their political and moral world-view as paramount. If you’re a conservative, you pour all of your energies and resources into making this possible. You fund and build think tanks which are going to spread their roots deeply and for as long as possible, whatever the cost. The result is an uneven playing field, where the conservatives get to define the rules of the game.
But for independent think tanks on the Australian political scene, it would seem this power play is shifting. Julia Gillard’s relationship with progressive think tank Per Capita in her approach to economic reform has been tapped as mirroring that of the relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and London-based think tank Demos, which functioned as a “centre for third-way ideas”. When Gillard was seeking an audience and host for the first sit-down speech of her 2010 election campaign on sustainability, she chose Eidos.
Think tanks have an integral role to play in pushing the boundaries of Australian political debate to encompass new and innovative policy solutions and transformative thought. The Buddhist mantra “what we think, we become” is particularly relevant here. Universities are the breeding ground for ideas. Think tanks are the perfect way to get them mobilised.
Download a PDF of this article taken from Campus Review 15 2010