In Think Tanks: The New Knowledge and Policy Brokers in AsiaJames G. McGann examines the role of think tanks in Asia, exploring their current limitations as well as how they can expand and improve the quality of their analysis to provide the region’s political actors with the policy advice they require. While the book contains the seeds of a compelling and informative argument, Erin Zimmerman finds that the book also suffers from a number of structural and organisational issues that make it a missed opportunity to forge a new path in think tank research. 

Think Tanks: The New Knowledge and Policy Brokers in Asia. James G. McGann. Brookings Institution Press. 2019.

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If you study think tanks or research institutes then you have inevitably come across the work of James McGann and the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania. For the past decade, the TTCSP’s yearly Go To Think Tank Index been a staple reference for think tank scholars, and the Program currently indexes more than 6,600 global think tanks and ranks them by several factors, including region and research area. When I was first asked to review a book by the TTCSP’s founder, I responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’. I was particularly excited because this new book, Think Tanks: The New Knowledge and Policy Brokers in Asia, is directly related to my own areas of interest: Asian think tanks, knowledge transfer and policy impact.

The Introduction to this work does not mince words and McGann correctly calls out many limitations of current Asian think tanks (lack of external funding, governmental interference, access to human capital, etc) and argues that the Western definition of such institutions does not translate to Asia. Despite these limitations, he argues that think tanks and their policy networks will be vital in helping Asian policymakers manage the ‘four mores’ – more issues, more actors, more competition and more conflict. Thus, the book’s overarching goal is to examine how Asian think tanks can expand and improve the quality of their analysis so that they can provide the region’s political actors with the policy advice they will require (4).

The book can roughly be broken down into three thematic sections: an introduction to the book and think tanks; an overview of think tanks in Asia; and then think tanks as knowledge and policy brokers.

The introductory section focuses primarily on the limitations of think tanks in Asia, the most notable of which is that they often have close governmental ties. If they are not outright part of the governing structure or governmentally affiliate, Asian think tanks are often still subject to direct governmental oversight or indirect influence due to a dependence on governmental funding. McGann’s observations are spot on and he rightly highlights how such relationships will limit think tanks’ abilities to produce new and innovative policy advice. For those interested, Herman Kraft’s article focuses specifically on what he refers to as the ‘autonomy dilemma’ present for think tanks in Asia. He, and other scholars, have noted that many Asian countries lack the civil society or philanthropic cultures that support independent think tanks, meaning that total autonomy may not be possible. With this in mind, this section of the book was also a missed opportunity to explore if close governmental links could actually be advantageous in certain instances. Other researchers, such as Brian Job (2010), Su-ming Khoo (2004), Diane Stone (2000, 2011, 2013) and myself (2016), have noted that governmental ties also grant think tanks political access and influence that they would not have otherwise had.

Image Credit: (Alessandro Bianchi CCO)

The second section contains an overview of think tanks in Asia and this is where I ran into some difficulty. This chapter’s stated goal is to explore ‘the role and impact of think tanks in Asia and the emergence of new global trends in the development of think tanks, as well as the place of Asian think tanks in the world today’ (65). Unfortunately, this 100-plus page chapter instead provides more of a disjointed collection of country one-shots which did not follow a discernible pattern or organisation. Some countries were covered in detail and depth (China), while others received less than a page (Malaysia). What aspects of each country and think tanks that were examined also seem selected at random with no justification. The section on Central Asia discusses the five key issues addressed by think tanks in the region. The Singapore section instead focuses on changes in per capita population per think tank. Only a few countries actually had any ‘suggested solutions’ (the Republic of Korea) that addressed the central theme of the book. Without any clear structure this section was more of a barrier to comprehension than a foundation for understanding.

The final section addresses think tanks as knowledge networks and policy brokers in Asia. In my opinion, this section would have been better placed directly after the Introduction as it justifies the premise of the book. Its contents are what make this volume a unique contribution to the literature surrounding think tanks. Perhaps more importantly, it would have given the reader a set of tools through which to interpret the previous section. Regardless of its location, this section rekindled my enthusiasm for the book as it presented a new lens through which to look at think tanks in Asia. This section was furthered by the lone in-depth case study. Written by Naoyuki Yoshino, the Dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute (the Asian Development Bank’s affiliated think tank), Yoshino does an excellent job of articulating how the ADBI has used its close relationship with the ADB to bolster its ability to act as a knowledge and policy broker. This chapter even addresses one of McGann’s main concerns about think tanks: their lack of autonomy from government. As Yoshino notes, it is the ADBI’s status as an affiliate of the ADB which gives it access to political influence and thus enhances its ability to establish partnerships, build networks and conduct success knowledge transfer. This chapter provided a wonderful example supporting the book’s thesis of how think tanks in Asia can aspire to do better.

While it started off promising, as I progressed through this book it became clear that it wasn’t going to live up to the goals it had set for itself. Instead of the concise analysis I was expecting, the manuscript struggled to stay on topic or provide a usable analytical framework. It was further undercut by organisational issues and a lack of attention to detail. For instance, the book contains dozens of figures, but many are not fully integrated into the text and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Other minor errors also undermine the value of the work. For example, several colour-coded pie charts were unusable because they were printed in grey-scale. There were also multiple instances where cut-and-paste errors left identical sentences or paragraphs in separate sections of the book. For instance, three sentences discussing Stone’s work appear on page 34 and again on page 45. Similarly, identical descriptions of Thomas Medvetz’s work are on page 35 and page 44.

This book contains the seeds of a compelling and informative argument but ultimately fails to find its feet. While some chapters shone, the book is a missed opportunity to forge a new path in think tank research; instead, it merely points the reader in the right direction but does not take them any further.

Dr. Erin Zimmerman, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany. Dr. Zimmerman received her PhD from the University of Adelaide, Australia. She is currently an Associate at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, Germany. Her current research focuses on non-state actors as governance entrepreneurs, emerging governance structures in Asia, non-traditional security and political radicalism. Her most recent book, Governance Entrepreneurs: Think Tanks and Non-Traditional Security in Southeast Asia, was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2016.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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