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Think tank: The term denotes a group of people who are paid to do nothing but read, discuss, think, and write, usually to address and redress a matter of vital importance to humanity.
It’s not the Wizard of Oz! Meet the real minds leading the world. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!
You can think of a think tank as a research university blessed with a complete absence of students and where, as a consequence, none of its professors has to teach—all they have to do is research, research, research.
At last count, the United States had 1,984 think tanks—nearly a third of the world’s total. American think tanks are constantly researching solutions to a variety of the world’s problems, and then arguing, advocating, and lobbying for policy changes at local, state, and federal levels.
Some think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation, have become household names and are cited frequently by major news corporations. Others are cited by outside organizations less frequently, or perhaps not at all, but publish their own articles and books for a select—and at times even sizable—audience.
The institutions on this list make up the 50 most influential think tanks in the United States. What makes a think tank influential? One way to gauge the influence of a think tank is to focus on the scholars active in it, their record of publications and other scholarly achievements, and how deeply these have affected the culture’s climate of opinion.
Our approach in ranking think tanks takes a different tack. As a business enterprise ourselves, we regard think tanks as principally in the business of selling their ideas. In this age of the Internet, in which every think tank has a website, we therefore can regard think tanks as in the business of search engine marketing, i.e., as attempting to market their ideas over the Internet and especially through their website.
Enter the tools that online businesses, like ours, use to assess how well websites and their pages are ranking with the search engines (we use several such tools, notably SEMrush.com). At TheBestSchools.org, we need these tools to determine how well we are doing in attracting and holding visitor traffic—in other words, to determine how influential our website is.
Accordingly, in choosing and ranking the think tanks on this list, we employed the following criteria, which look less at the intrinsic merit of a think tank and its intellectual program as at its pragmatic or "cash value" (as the philosopher William James would have put it):
The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was established in 1973 with the intent of analyzing arms control and nuclear threat reduction. Thanks to a sizable donation by the Ford Foundation, Belfer is now a permanent research center located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and has expanded to include research in the subjects of science, technology, public policy, the environment, and natural resources. Today, Belfer works towards a dual mission of “preparing future generations of leaders,” and “providing leadership in advancing policy-relevant knowledge about the most important challenges of … security and …. other critical issues.”
(New York, NY)
The Earth Institute was founded in 1995 at Columbia University in New York. With the belief that currently existing science and technology could be applied to improve the conditions of world populations, the Institute focuses on addressing important global issues such as sustainable development and the needs of the world’s poor. The Institute is composed of 18 separate units, all of which conduct their own research and writing. These include the Center for Rivers and Estuaries, the Earth Engineering Center, the Urban Design Lab, and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, among others. The Institute also regularly partners with similar institutions in order to specifically target various topics. Finally, the Institute maintains the popular blog “State of the Planet.”
Founded in 1973, the Heritage Foundation rose to prominence during the Reagan administration and the Conservative Movement of the 1980s. In fact, many of Reagan’s policies drew significantly from the “Mandate for Leadership,” Heritage’s official policy study. Since then, Heritage has solidified itself as one of the most influential Conservative organizations in the United States. Consistent with its interest in economic principles, Heritage tracks the yearly growth of federal spending, revenue, debt and deficits, and entitlement programs, which it then publishes as the Budget Chart Book and distributes free to the public. Heritage also publishes a number of political theory books, and partners with the Wall Street Journal each year to publish the Annual Index of Economic Freedom. Heritage’s current Board of Trustees reads like a “Who’s Who” of the new Conservative movement, and includes such names as Larry P. Arnn (President of Hillsdale College), Jim DeMint (former Senator and now President of Heritage), and Steve Forbes (President and CEO of Forbes).
(New York, NY)
With headquarters in New York and offices in 18 major cities around the world (including Washington, DC), Human Rights Watch is a powerful organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. The organization was originally founded in 1978 in order to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords, but has since expanded to include an Americas Watch, an Asia Watch, an Africa Watch, and a Middle East Watch. Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes hundreds of reports on violations of international human rights norms in an effort to draw attention to abuses and pressure governments to reform. In recent years, the organization has been the subject of a number of controversies regarding its association with polarizing philanthropist George Soros, and accusations that it is too influenced by the agendas of US foreign policy.
(Menlo Park, CA)
Founded in 1948, the Kaiser Family Foundation focuses on major healthcare issues in the US and, to a lesser extent, the world. Over the years, it has become a must-read for healthcare devotees and a quality non-partisan source for up-to-date and accurate information on health policy. The Foundation regularly releases facts, polls, and analyses that are in turn used by the media, policymakers, the healthcare community, and the general public. Specific research programs include disparities policy, global health policy, health costs, health reform, HIV/AIDS, Medicaid, Medicare, private insurance, the uninsured, and women’s health policy. Despite an original association, the Foundation is no longer affiliated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.
(New York, NY)
With offices in New York City and Washington, DC, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is considered by some to be the most influential foreign-policy think tank in the United States. Including names like Fareed Zakaria, Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, and Madeleine Albright, CFR’s impressive membership list has included senior politicians, more than a dozen Secretaries of State, CIA directors, bankers, lawyers, professors, and prominent media figures. CFR is perhaps best known by the general public as the publisher of the widely read bi-monthly journal Foreign Affairs. In policy circles, however, CFR is known for its “David Rockefeller Studies Program,” which often succeeds in influencing foreign policy by making official recommendations to the President and diplomatic community, testifying before Congress, speaking with the media, and publishing on issues of foreign policy.
The Brookings Institution boasts two major claims when it comes to think tanks: it was likely the first think tank to be founded in the United States, and its studies are the most widely cited by the media. Since its foundation in 1916, Brookings has influenced and contributed to the creation of such historic phenomena as the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the Congressional Budget Office, and various policies of deregulation, broad-based tax reform, welfare reform, and foreign aid. Despite being founded as a Progressive institution, Brookings states that its scholars “represent diverse points of view.” Consistent with this claim is the fact that Brookings is referenced by Conservative politicians almost as frequently as it is by those who are Liberal. To keep up with its widespread influence, Brookings conducts research and education in a number of social sciences, including economics, metropolitan policy, governance, foreign policy, and global economy and development.
Founded in 1974, Cato Institute moved to Washington, DC, in 1981 in an attempt to become more influential. And become influential it has! Today, Cato is a multi-billion, multi-issue organization consisting of more than 200 faculty and staff members. Named after Cato’s Letters, a series of pamphlets published in England in the 1720s which helped lay the philosophical foundation for the American Revolution, Cato’s mission is “to broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets, and peace.” To achieve this mission, Cato publishes numerous policy studies, briefs, books, and periodicals, including the peer-reviewed Cato Journal. It also maintains popular websites such as Libertarianism.org, Cato-unbound.org, Overlawyered.com, and Policemisconduct.net.
Cato Institute’s Friedich Hayek ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
Ludwig von Mises Institute is a Libertarian academic think tank that specializes in researching and promoting Classical Liberal viewpoints about subjects such as economics, philosophy, and political economy. Named for the famous Austrian School economist, the Institute’s stated mission is to promote “the Misesian tradition of thought through the defense of the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention.” As such it has become, perhaps more than any other institution on this list, the darling of myriad Young Conservative groups.
The Ludwig von Mises Institute resists being labeled as "conservative" by any standard. Specifically, their foreign policy views, their position on the US Constitution, and their views on social policy are all either non-conservative or anti-conservative. The only place where conservatives may overlap with them is in market economics, but only in America is that considered to be a "conservative" position.
The Institute publishes a large number of books, journal articles, and online articles each year, including the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and the Mises Review.
Ludwig von Mises ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
Ludwig von Mises’ Murray Rothbard ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
Founded in 1938, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) seeks to “defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism” through “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.” In recent years, AEI has become the most prominent think tank associated with Neo-Conservatism, and has succeeded in placing its members in influential government positions—a fact which has made it highly controversial. In fact, more than 20 AEI scholars and fellows served in posts in the George W. Bush administration.
(Santa Monica, CA)
Standing for "Research ANd Development," the RAND Corporation was founded in 1948 by the Douglas Aircraft Company in order to look into the long-range planning of future weapons. Today, RAND is funded by the US government, a private endowment, universities, and major corporations (especially healthcare), and as such has extended its areas of focus to include everything from energy and the environment, to transportation and public safety. On the education front, RAND is home to the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world’s largest PhD-granting program in Policy Analysis. RAND also publishes the peer-reviewed RAND Journal of Economics.
Founded in 2003, Center for American Progress (CAP) is one of the youngest—yet most influential—think tanks on this list. With the motto “Progressive ideas for a strong, just, and free America,” CAP deals in major domestic issues such as Economic Policy, Education, Health, Security and International Affairs, and Social Policy. CAP’s influence climaxed during the 2008 Presidential election, due in part to its campus outreach group, Generation Progress. In fact, referring to the program’s success, Time magazine said, “Not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan’s transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway.” Since then, the Center has remained highly influential with the Obama Administration, especially in the form of appointments. Unfortunately, CAP has undergone a number of recent controversies due to its unwillingness to disclose its contributors. In 2015, the Center released a partial list that included the Ford Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walmart, Walton Family Foundation, CitiGroup, and the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. CAP’s current CEO, Neera Tanden, formerly worked for the Obama and Clinton administrations, and for Hillary Clinton’s campaigns.
(New York, NY)
As stated in its mission statement, the Guttmacher Institute aims to “generate new ideas, encourage enlightened public debate, promote sound policy and program development and, ultimately, inform individual decision making” about some of the United States’ most divisive topics, including abortion, contraception, HIV/AIDS, and bioethics, and other sexual and reproductive health issues. Founded in 1968 as a semi-autonomous division of Planned Parenthood, the Liberal organization has since become an independent institution that has raised more than $22 million in 2013, and $16 million last year. The Institute publishes The Guttmacher Policy Review journal, as well as the periodicals Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health and International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. All of its publications are researched and written with the goal of ensuring high standards of sexual and reproductive health for all people worldwide. The Institute works both in the United States and globally, evenly splitting its energies between the two.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) was founded in 1981 by Robert Greenstein, a former political appointee in the Jimmy Carter administration. The Center analyzes the impact of federal and state government budget policies from a Progressive viewpoint, and as such, generally argues for more spending for social programs and fewer tax cuts. The Center has been involved in the establishment of a number of influential government programs over the years, including the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative and the International Budget Partnership. CBPP’s Board of Directors includes such names as former Kennedy press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, Brookings Institute senior fellow Henry J. Aaron, and former Social Security Administration Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel.
The National Bureau of Economic Research has been committed to “undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professional, and the academic community.” In fact, NBER is best known for accurately providing start and end dates for recessions in the United States. Not surprisingly, considering its success, an amazing 22 Nobel Prize–winners for economics have been a part of NBER, including Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz. In recent years, NBER has developed additional research programs in subjects such as aging, children, education, and healthcare, among others.
National Bureau of Economic Research’s Joseph Stiglitz ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
National Bureau of Economic Research’s Paul Krugman ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, known also as EPIC, was founded in 1994 by the Fund for Constitutional Government and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. At first, EPIC focused solely on government surveillance and issues having to do with cryptology. Since then, it has expanded to include programs and research on a much wider variety of topics, including government transparency, electronic voting, identity theft, medical record privacy, commercial mining data, and the use of the Freedom of Information Act to publicize documents. Appropriately, EPIC’s publications are practically all online. In addition to maintaining websites and groups such as privacy.org, the Public Voice coalition, and the Privacy Coalition, EPIC publishes the online EPIC Alert every two weeks. Other EPIC publications include Privacy & Human Rights, Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws, Public Voice WSIS Sourcebook, Privacy Law Sourcebook, and Consumer Law Sourcebook.
Founded in 1981 by C. Fred Bergsten, the Peterson Institute for International Economics devotes itself to the study of international economic policy. Though many think tanks declare themselves “Independent,” both the US Congress and various press organizations have rated Peterson truly “neutral” and “nonpartisan”—a rarity. The most recent Global Go To Think Tank Index Report listed Peterson as the 13th-best in the United States; however, it was ranked first as recently as 2008, and in 2011 the British magazine Prospect referred to Peterson’s as the “Oscars of the think tank world.”
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is one of the most respected think tanks in Washington. Since 1962, CSIS has maintained its stated mission of “finding ways to sustain American prominence and prosperity as a force for good in the world” by providing non-partisan policy analyses on issues such as international relations, trade, technology, finance, energy, and geo-strategy. Over the years, a number of well-respected figures from every part of the political spectrum have worked with CSIS, including Madeleine Albright, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. CSIS regularly publishes books, reports, newsletters, and commentaries targeted at major decision-makers. These publications include Washington Quarterly, Critical Questions, Freeman Report Newsletter, and New Perspectives in Foreign Policy.
Urban Institute was founded in 1968 by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in order to study the nation’s urban problems and evaluate initiatives set in motion through LBJ’s “Great Society” laws. Today, Urban conducts nearly 200 individual projects at any given time, the subjects of which range from the cost-effectiveness of crime prevention to the success of immigrant children in US schools. Most of Urban’s researchers are economists, social scientists, or public policy researchers, and past Board of Trustee members have included such heavyweights as McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara. Though Urban describes itself as “Independent,” a study by the Quarterly Journal of Economics on media bias ranked the Institute as the eleventh-most-liberal (right between the NAACP and PETA). Urban has also been described as a “leading liberal think tank” by the Los Angeles Times.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a Liberal think tank that assesses current economic policies and advocates for low- and moderate-income families. EPI deals with 12 main issues (including education, immigration, race and ethnicity, and health), and runs three major programs: the Economic Analysis and Research Network, a nationwide network of advocacy groups; the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, which addresses economic inequalities faced by minorities; and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a national campaign that seeks to remedy issues faced by children in education. EPI also publishes State of Working America, a regularly published book that breaks down the economy’s impact on the living standards of working families.
Founded in 1950, the Aspen Institute is dedicated to “fostering enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and open-minded dialogue on contemporary issues.” To do this, the Institute regularly hosts seminars, policy programs, conferences, and leadership development initiatives. Aspen is headquartered in Washington, DC, but has additional campuses in Colorado and Maryland, as well as partner Aspen Institutes in Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Paris, Lyon, Tokyo, New Delhi, Prague, and Bucharest. The Aspen Institute’s Board of Trustees is easily the most impressive of the 50 think tanks on this list, and includes such names as Madeleine Albright, Salman Khan, David Koch, Yo-Yo Ma, Queen Noor of Jordan, and Condoleezza Rice. Acclaimed author Walter Isaacson is Aspen’s current President and CEO.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is a DC-based think tank dealing primarily in issues of international development, science and technology, and security and international affairs. Established in 1968 as part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Center named for former President Woodrow Wilson seeks to “commemorate the ideals and concerns of [Wilson] by: providing a link between the world of ideas and the world of policy; and fostering research, study, discussion, and collaboration among a full spectrum of individuals.” Though officially a Centrist organization, most critics tend to agree that it actually leans toward the Liberal or Progressive side (Wilson was one of the first Progressives, while Democrat John Kerry is a current member). The Woodrow Wilson Center Press publishes a number of books each year by fellows and other resident scholars, as well as the Center’s journal, Wilson Quarterly.
The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace is a think tank associated with Stanford University. Since its founding by pre-presidential Herbert Hoover in 1919, the Institution has been a leader in Domestic Economic Policy, Security, and International Affairs. It describes itself as “moderate Conservative,” which makes sense once you remember that its namesake once toyed with the idea of becoming a Democrat. Regardless, Hoover has maintained the same basic tenets of “representative government, private enterprise, peace, and personal freedom” for nearly 100 years. Its in-house publisher is Hoover Institution Press (which produces books written by Hoover fellows), as well as the quarterly periodicals Hoover Digest, Education Next, China Leadership Monitor, and Defining Ideas.
The Hoover Institute’s Thomas Sowell ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
(New York, NY)
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a well-known Conservative think tank that seeks to “develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.” Specifically, the Institute advocates for free market–based solutions to issues plaguing the economy, energy, education, healthcare, welfare reform, the legal system, crime reduction, and urban life, among a number of other things. To do this, it publishes a number of books, articles, op-eds, and interviews targeted towards politicians, scholars, and journalists. The Manhattan Institute also publishes the quarterly City Journal.
Working under the motto “Pro-Immigrant, Low-Immigration,” the Center for Immigration Studies works to “provide immigration policymakers, the academic community, news media, and concerned citizens with reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.” The Center has been called to testify before Congress on dozens of occasions, and has even been cited in Supreme Court opinions. They also maintain a popular blog, and publish books and articles relating to both illegal and legal immigration. The Center is highly controversial, and in recent years has been accused by the Wall Street Journal and the Southern Poverty Law Center of having ties to white supremacist groups and a eugenics foundation.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is a non-partisan think tank that specializes in foreign policy. Though its headquarters are located in the Embassy Row neighborhood of Washington, DC, it also has centers in Moscow, Beirut, Beijing, and Brussels, which make it a unique global network of policy research centers. Each center worldwide houses local experts who produce top-notch work on critical national, regional, and global issues. As intended, these experts often provide national capitals and institutions with a deeper understanding of the circumstances shaping various policy choices. The Endowment remains highly influential, and since 2005 the Endowment’s asset amount has increased 44% from $243 million to $349 million.
(New York, NY)
The Open Society Foundation was founded in 1993 by George Soros. Affiliated with the Soros Foundation Budapest, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the Soros Foundation New York, the Open Society Foundation releases information and funds to civil society groups around the world in an effort to advance justice, education, public health, and independent media. In the US, the Institute has focused recent efforts on advocating for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, net neutrality, and the organization of mass protests, including the Occupy Movement. It is also worth mentioning that George Soros remains a very polarizing and controversial figure. Critics on the Left have argued that the Open Society Institute and Foundation serve only to advance a capitalist order, while figures on the Right have claimed the Foundation works with the intention of establishing a unitary global government.
Freedom House was founded in 1941 by a list of DC powerhouses that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. Originally established in response to the threat of Nazism, Freedom House has remained consistent in its vigorous opposition to any and all threats to democracy: dictatorships in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, the suppression of the Prague Spring, genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, and various human rights atrocities worldwide. Today, Freedom House publishes a number of books and reports by both its fellows and prominent statesmen, though it is most famous for its annual "Freedom in the World" report, which ranks each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties. This report is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists, policymakers, and those in academia. Other Freedom House–published reports include the similar "Freedom of the Press" and "Freedom of the Net."
Founded in 1999, the New America Foundation is a relatively new, yet widely cited, think tank that was recently named the 25th-best think tank among “those to watch.” The Foundation seeks to bring new voices and ideas to the public eye by literally investing in exceptional individuals and policy ideas that transcend the political spectrum. Through unique initiatives and its Fellowship Program, the Foundation deals in a variety of research, and often organizes conferences and special events focusing on the most important issues of the time. Its impressive Board of Directors includes Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows, Foundation co-founder Ted Halstead, and prominent author and journalist Fareed Zakaria.
The Independent Institute may be tiny, but in the 29 years since its founding, it has grown into a respected think tank that made UPenn’s 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report as the 54th-best think tank in the United States. Originally founded in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Institute expanded in 2006 to include a second location in Washington, DC. The Institute’s nearly 150 research fellows research, write, and publish their findings for everything from public consumption, to the basis for conferences, to information for media programs. Its most successful publication is undoubtedly the peer-reviewed Independent Review, which includes articles on economics, political science, law, history, philosophy, and sociology. Since 2010, the Institute has run a satellite website called MyGovCost.org, which uses a calculator to individualize for each visitor the personal cost of government spending.
The Heartland Institute was founded in Chicago in 1984, and has become a rapidly up-and-coming public policy think tank. The Institute is heavily involved in advocacy and research, especially on such topics as government spending, taxation, healthcare, tobacco policy, global warming, information technology, and free-market environmentalism. In fact, in recent years the Institute has made waves as the primary American supporter of critics of the scientific "consensus" on climate change, and has published countless articles (and even a billboard campaign) pointing out the economic dangers of some of the suggested regulations on the burning of fossil fuels. The Institute has published five books, but is best known for publishing its four monthly public policy newspapers: Budget and Tax News, School Reform News, Environment & Climate News, and Health Care News.
(New York, NY)
Founded in 1918 with a $10 million endowment by Standard Oil–widow Anna M. Harkness, the Commonwealth Fund was one of the first foundations established by a woman. Since then, it has expanded into a think tank that promotes a high-performing healthcare system and advocates for low-income families, the uninsured, minorities, young children, and the elderly. Since the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the Fund has become a main source of information about the law’s reforms, enrollment numbers, the effects of insurance reforms and sustainability of insurance marketplaces, and much more. The Fund also hosts an international healthcare policy symposium each year in Washington, DC.
Based in Seattle, the Discovery Institute is a public policy think tank best known for advocating “intelligent design”: the idea that the neo-Darwinian theory of natural selection cannot account for the complex functionality of living things. Since its founding in 1990 as a branch of the Hudson Institute, Discovery has been a target for controversy. Discovery actively promotes a “Teach the Controversy” campaign, which aims for US public high schools to teach theories of both natural selection and intelligent design in science courses. Discovery Institute has published a number of articles and books through its Discovery Institute Press, including The Deniable Darwin & Other Essays and The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, among others.
The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) was founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. Today, BPC claims it is the only Washington, DC–based think tank that actively works to address key national issues while promoting bipartisanship. To do this, the Center hosts a number of events including “Bridge-Builder Breakfasts,” political summits, and policy discussions. On the research end of things, BCP’s main topics of interest include economic policy, healthcare and nutrition, energy, housing, national security, and transportation. Seven state governors serve on BPC’s aptly named Governors’ Council, while the Center’s list of senior fellows has included former US Senator Olympia Snowe, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and former US Senator Bill Frist, among many others.
(Grand Rapids, MI)
Acton Institute is a Michigan-based think tank that works towards the mission of promoting a “free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” Named for the nineteenth-century English parliamentarian and historian, Lord Acton, the Institute publishes a number of articles, books, periodicals, and papers on subjects that work toward this goal, including the internationally renowned Journal of Markets & Morality, Acton Notes, Samaritan Guide, the Abraham Kuyper Translation Project, an the Acton PowerBlog, to name but a few. Interestingly, Acton has successfully built a network of international affiliations in Italy, Brazil, Austria, and Zambia, all of which further promote and defend human rights and the free market. Acton is widely respected by those in related fields, and in 2012, the Institute was named one of the top 50 American think tanks by the University of Pennsylvania.
The Atlantic Council can trace its roots back to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, during which member countries came together to promote public understanding and support for policies with the potential to bring widespread peace. Since its official establishment in 1961, at which time the US citizen groups were consolidated, the Atlantic Council has provided a forum for the world’s political, business, and intellectual leaders. Its global network is truly unique, and as such has played an important role in shaping the twenty-first century. Atlantic is headquartered in Washington, DC, though it also consists of 10 centers and programs that focus on specific regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, among others. Despite its early association with NATO, the Atlantic Council is a separate institution.
(San Francisco, CA)
The Public Policy Institute of California was founded in 1994 with a whopping $70 million endowment from Redington Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard fame. The Institute deals mostly in research, and topics of focus include population issues, the economy, governance, and public finance. Though it does deal with nationwide issues, the Institute is perhaps best known for its work concerning California. Specifically, the Institute conducts public opinion polls on California public policy, then disseminates the results to state, local, and federal officials, as well as to the media and the general public. In addition to its research and fellowship program, the Institute hosts a summer internship for graduate students and occasionally organizes conferences on specific issues.
The Worldwatch Institute is a Washington, DC–based think tank devoted solely to global environmental concerns. More than just a research organization, Worldwatch works to develop innovative solutions to issues, advocate for the environment to government leadership and members of private enterprise, and rally for citizen action. Worldwatch’s main areas of focus are energy and climate, food and agriculture, and green economy, the latter of which seeks to offer solutions that enhance human well-being while also protecting the planet. Worldwatch publishes the annual "State of the World" report, which is an assessment of urgent global environmental problems paired with innovative ideas for solutions.
Originally founded at Rutgers University, Mercatus moved to George Mason University in the mid-1980s after a $30 million donation from Koch Industries, which remains a major source of funding. As is appropriate for a think tank named for the Latin word for “markets,” Mercatus advocates for free-market approaches to public policy, and works with policy experts, lobbyists, and government officials to connect theory with public policy. Mercatus has provided more than 100 testimonies to Congress on topics such as government transparency, subsidies, taxation, regulation, corruption, and Austrian economics. Each year, the Center publishes “Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom.”
The Mercatus Center’s Vernon L. Smith ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
The Mercatus Center’s Peter Boettke ranks on our list of The Top 50 Economists from 1900 to the Present.
Center for a New American Security (CNAS) was founded relatively recently, in 2007, but has since become a regular resource to such media outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, C-SPAN, NBC, NPR, and a number of others. The Center specializes in domestic national security issues, especially terrorism, irregular warfare, the future of the US military, and Asia’s emergence as a global power. While CNAS describes itself as “independent” and “non-partisan,” the Obama administration has hired several CNAS employees for important jobs, including CNAS co-founders Kurt Campbell (Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs) and Michele Flournoy (Undersecretary of Defense for Policy). Most of what CNAS publishes are thorough reports meant to assist and inform policy-makers and national security leaders.
Believing that people are best helped by a free marketplace, and not government regulation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) promotes Libertarian ideas through analysis, education, advocacy, and coalition-building. The Institute itself is composed of five individual centers—the Center for Advancing Capitalism, the Center for Economic Freedom, the Center for Energy and Environment, the Center for Law and Litigation, and the Center for Technology and Innovation—all of which produce their own policy papers, testify at governmental hearings, advertise, and publish books and open letters.
(New York, NY)
Founded in 1907, the Russell Sage Foundation has become what is likely the foremost institution for research in the social sciences. It is also one of the oldest, having been established in 1907 by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the widow of railroad magnate Russell Sage. Located in New York City, the Foundation conducts research, funds scholars at a number of academic institutions, and publishes books and other work through its own imprint. Currently, the Foundation works exclusively to “strengthen the methods, data, and theoretical core of the social sciences as a means of improving social policies.” Favored topics include labor markets, immigration, social inequality, behavioral economics, the US Census, and the Great Recession.
(Los Angeles, CA)
Though founded in 1978, the Reason Foundation has only recently become a Libertarian powerhouse. It deals with a wide range of policy research areas, including air traffic control, land use, school choice, government reform, housing, eminent domain, medical marijuana, and much, much more. Unlike nearly all of the other think tanks on this list, Reason’s research, analysis, and articles are all aimed at the general public. Though they publish Reason magazine, they are most successful through Facebook, on which they have nearly 300,000 followers.
Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) is a unique think tank that specializes in policy analysis, exchange, and communication issues in the Western Hemisphere, specifically in Latin America. In order to most successfully combine accurate research and effective solutions, IAD consists of a Board of Directors that includes more than 100 public and private leaders from the US, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Barbados, and Panama. Of these members, 16 served as president of their country, more than 20 served at cabinet level, and 17 have held congressional seats. Besides research and the publication of various articles and policy analysis, IAD routinely organizes briefings and large conferences on topics such as Haiti, Cuba, the threat to freedom of the press in Latin America, Latin American trade and investment, and migration.
The Stimson Center uses analysis and outreach in an attempt to enhance international peace and security. Upon its founding in 1989, Stimson focused exclusively on arms control. Since then, it has expanded to include a wide range of security issues, including international peace organizations and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Stimson also runs the "Security for a New Century" seminar series, through which it works actively with the US Congress. The Center publishes a number of books, articles, and studies each year, the most well-known of which is the “Spotlight” series, a bi-weekly commentary on current foreign policy issues.
Named for a former US Secretary of State, and directed by a former US Ambassador to Israel and Syria, the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University has become a well-respected producer of public policy research. Baker is officially non-partisan, and conducts research with the aim of narrowing the gap between theory and practice in public policy. Areas of current research include Arab media and politics, drug policy, homeland security and terrorism, space policy, and projects on the Americas, China, and Mexico, to name but a few. The institute employs scholars and researchers from a variety of backgrounds, and its Board of Advisors includes named such as William Barnett, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, and Rice University President David Leebron.
(New York, NY)
Andrew Carnegie was nothing if not ambitious, and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is a great example of that ambition. Originally founded in 1914 as the Church Peace Union, the Council brought together leaders in religion, academia, and politics in an attempt to achieve the lofty goal of making war obsolete. Though its mission has been slightly altered, today’s Council still seeks to be “the voice for ethics” in international affairs. Its scholars research the ethical dilemmas in issues such as deadly conflict, human rights violations, globalization, economic inequalities, and the role of religion in politics, among other things. Many of these findings are presented in regularly scheduled forums and/or published in the Council’s quarterly scholarly journal, Ethics & International Affairs.
Named for the political position that tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics, Third Way is a think tank organization founded in 2005 by former Clinton Administration staffers. The think tank develops policy ideas, conducts public opinion research, and hosts issue briefings on the subjects of economics, national security, clean energy, and social policy and politics. Despite its young age, Third Way has become internationally recognized for its advocacy of “vital center policies.” In fact, in 2013, Third Way was named “North American Think Tank of the Year” by British current affairs magazine Prospect. Recently, Third Way has been directly involved in policy issues such as the economic benefits of green energy, deficit reduction, proposals to reform Medicare and Medicaid, the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and new trade accords with Korea, Colombia, and Panama.
The Claremont Institute, founded in 1979, aims to “teach the practical application of the principles of the American Founding,” in order to “establish a limited and accountable government that respects natural law, private property, promotes a stable family life, and maintains a strong national defense.” Not surprisingly, Claremont is a favorite amongst a number of Classical Liberal and Young Conservative organizations. In addition to research, Claremont runs the Publius Fellows program, which hosts young Conservatives for seminars on political thought; presents the Ronald Reagan Freedom Medallion; hosts regular debates with the Ludwig von Mises Institute; and runs the Lincoln Fellows program, an internship for young professionals serving elected officials. The latter program is especially impressive, and has turned out such notable alumni as former California State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, political commentator Carol Platt Liebau, cartoonist Michael Ramirez, Delaware politician Christine O’Donnell, and radio talk show host and best-selling author Mark Levin. The Institute also sponsors several books series in conjunction with other publishers through its various "Claremont Institute Series" imprints, as well as publishing the quarterly Claremont Review of Books—the American right’s own cerebral answer to the New York Review of Books.
The Lexington Institute was founded in 1998 in order to promote America’s ability to project power around the world so that “we can not only defend the homeland of democracy, but also sustain the international stability in which other free-market democracies can thrive.” Its three main issues are national security, education reform, and US relations with Cuba. Lexington’s fellows and researchers are widely cited by the media, especially when it comes to the issue of Cuba. Though the Institute officially refers to itself as “independent” and “non-partisan,” many think tank watch groups and media sources have labeled it as “Conservative.”