Ricochet’s own Tevi Troy recently published a fantastic essay on the significance and history of think tanks in the U.S. It is extremely well-researched. Although I thought I knew a lot about think tanks (indeed huge part of the research for my book was to analyze media citations of think tank scholars), I learned a lot. The following is one of the many very informative passages of the piece:
Although they were becoming increasingly important in prominent policy discussions, think tanks in the 1950s and ’60s intentionally kept some distance between themselves and the most heated political debates of the era. They saw it as their role to inform but not quite to advocate — to help clarify policy alternatives, but generally not to choose among them. This may have been driven in part by their understandable desire to retain that all-important tax-exempt status. Still, most think tanks went well beyond the requirements of the tax code, having made a very deliberate decision to distance themselves from direct policy advocacy.
It was frustration with this studied aloofness that eventually ushered in the age of more activist think tanks, beginning especially on the right. In his book The Power of Ideas, Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards describes a pivotal moment in this evolution when, in 1971, AEI produced a study of the benefits and drawbacks of the supersonic transport aircraft that Congress was considering funding for the Pentagon. The study was delivered to congressional offices a few days after the Senate had defeated funding for the project in a close 51-46 vote. After receiving the apparently tardy report, Paul Weyrich — then an aide to Colorado Republican senator Gordon Allott — called AEI president William Baroody to ask why the helpful analysis could not have been available before the vote. Baroody’s response, according to Edwards, was that AEI “didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.”
Baroody’s answer shocked Weyrich and his fellow congressional staffer Ed Feulner, who wondered what the purpose of such research was if not to affect the outcome of exactly that sort of vote. Weyrich and Feulner hatched the notion of a new think tank that would see as its mission the development of serious policy research to advance a broadly conservative agenda. Encouraged by Nixon White House staffer Lyn Nofziger, they began the work that would, in 1973, result in the creation of the Heritage Foundation.