Event ReportsPublished on Jul 21, 2009
An ORF Interaction with Ms Ellen Laipson
Do think tanks impact public policy in India and US?

"Think tanks do not make critical foreign policy decisions, but they are an organic part of the way in which ideas are incubated, tested, promoted and evaluated," President and Chief Executive Officer of the Washington based Henry L. Stimson Centre Ms Ellen Laipson told a select groups of experts and scholars at the ORF campus on Tuesday, July 21.

Speaking on the "Think Tanks: Supporting Cast Players in the National Security Enterprise", Ms Laipson said that while think-tanks play an important role in pre- and post-decision making stages, the decision to execute a policy remains, perhaps for the better, outside of their area of influence.

Ms. Laipson, who has held several senior foreign policy positions in the US government during a career in public service lasting 25 years, underlined several non-traditional security challenges that can be effectively responded to through active cooperation between the government, media and academicians and the research community.

"Think tanks are an important but unofficial part of the national security enterprise", MS Laipson said added that "their contributions are indirect and informal". "Think tanks do not make critical foreign policy decisions, face no public accountability nor do they perform any inherently government functions. But they are increasingly integrated into the way the US government conceptualizes its national security interests and devises responses to the diverse challenges and opportunities of national and international security."

"Government officials vary in the degree to which they seek input from think tanks, but the frequency with which very senior officials launch new policy initiatives at think tanks, or working level officers seek critical input and feedback from think tank experts, suggests that think tanks are accepted as a normal and integral part of the policy formulation and outreach", she stressed pointing to the emerging role of think tanks.

Emphasizing the role played by think-tanks in the public policy domain, Ms Laipson said "A secondary concern for think tanks is the need for private funding, which occasionally can compromises the perceived intellectual independence of the organisation".

Hence, to preserve the integrity of think-tanks distance must be maintained with the government as well as big businesses as they are primarily a unique forum for non-governmental and independent public policy debate and ideation, she said.

One of the lead participants in the conference, Prof. Rajesh Rajgopalan of Jawaharlal Nehru University, suggested that think-tanks ought to remain outside of government, developing policy solutions as independent research entities, but not acting as lobbying firms. He underlined two main problems faced by the think-tanks in India. The first pertained to the closed nature of the civil service, which usually bars any effective interaction between the government and the think-tanks, except in the areas where civil service expertise is low, like in the field of economics and social sectors. The second problem is simply the lack of available expertise outside of the government as ’area studies’ as well as ’country studies’ in certain cases have been ignored or mildly engaged with by the academic and research community. However, he was optimistic that the recent growth of the relevance and influence of think-tanks is surely providing an alternate platform for crucial debate and research.

Stressing the importance of a synergistic relationship between the media and research institutes, another discussant Prof. Baladas Ghoshal, Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Research, spoke about the need for an institutional arrangement for conducting regular interactions amongst various think-tanks of different countries. He also argued that Indian think-tanks are largely not influenced by the government as the only government is yet to recognise these organisations as relevant intellectual resources.

The third discussant Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal, Director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies, agreed that though the government does provide financial assistance and autonomy to think-tanks, think-tank research and recommendations are in many instances neglected and therefore de facto independent of decision making. So far the engagement between think tanks and media was concerned, Brig Kanwal was of the view that the media persons are merely concerned with meeting their basic news feeds and do not engage meaningfully with the findings and outputs of the think tank research.

In reply to a question from Ms. Laipson, Brig. Kanwal said that research institutions in India work with a global perspective and their work and methods are definitely influenced by and in line with the research practises and developments in the US and the West. Some Indian institutes may produce nationalist views but their thinking and approach is global and processes are similar to think tanks in the United States. He also agreed that recently the Indian think-tanks have just begun to acquire traction within the actual policy-making circles.

The last discussant General Chopra argued that Indian think-tanks are personality-oriented and are also US-oriented. Elaborating further, he said that the think-tank industry is still in its infancy and is often aligned with a powerful personality who is often the think-tank’s president or chairman. Consequently, grooming available talent at the lower levels is often overlooked. The next big handicap of Indian think-tanks is their failure to develop their own resources for reference purposes, resulting in a tendency to look overwhelmingly at Western sources and most often those of the United States.

This two hour long interactive session was chaired by Mr. Vikram Sood, former chief of R&AW and current Vice President of ORF’s Center for International Relations. The meeting discussed the role of public policy think-tanks in the US as vital intermediaries among government officials, the media, academics, and the public and whether the think-tanks in India are increasingly fulfilling a similar role. Mr. Sood and others discussed the strategic necessity of think-tanks in India and their ability to serve as vehicles for the development of creative and practical policy solutions to respond to the diverse strategic challenges.

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