UK Think Tanks in 2022
Smart Thinking

This short briefing note summarises the key findings of the survey. Overall, the sector is currently taking a high-profile role in many of the big political discussions of the moment. These include think tanks working in the foreign policy and security and defence space providing insights and expertise as the Ukraine crisis has unfolded. Likewise, the research and data on inflation and cost of living produced by many of the domestic-focused UK institutions has highlighted how they play a crucial role in checking government statements.

As well as continuing to play a highly visible role in public policy discussion this year’s survey also reads for a more positive story about the sector itself. This is clear in the significant drop in those who believe that the sector is facing more challenges now than in the past three years. In the last survey 54% thought the sector faced more challenges now than it did three years ago, down from 58% in 2019. This year it has dropped significantly further to 33%. Partly this can be explained by the change in environment. Those concerned about the impact of fake news and a distrust in experts has also decreased, alongside a 9% drop in those who think the current political environment is having a negative impact on the policy environment.

Many of the key fundamentals in the sector remain consistent, year on year. Think tanks overwhelmingly count politicians as their number one audience but also believe that they have a role to play in educating the general public. However, those who believe they could be more innovative in reaching a wider audience remains stubbornly high at 87%.

The most valuable contribution a think tank makes also remains broadly the same with evidence-based research being listed again as the top contribution. Policy recommendations have, however, gone from 30% in 2020 believing it to be the most important contribution to 37% this year. Scrutiny of current policy has also increased for the second year in a row, with 13% listing it as their think tank’s most valuable contribution.

This year’s survey also highlights, once again, the think tanks’ responsiveness to new challenges. In 2020 we saw that responsiveness in the pivot to online events because of the pandemic. We also can see it in the changing popular event topics for the past three years. In the last survey health and society and diversity had displaced Brexit in the top five as most popular, reflecting the pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests. This year it is the environment that has taken priority. This rapid reaction to new policy discussions indicates a more innovative sector than traditionally assumed.

This responsiveness is also reflected in what the think tanks believe to be the most likely challenges they will face in the next 12 months. In 2020, lack of funding and the recovery from Covid-19 were the top two challenges think tanks believed themselves to be facing in the next 12 months. This year it has reverted to the 2019 answers of political uncertainty and the quality of the public debate.

On a positive note, 63% feel optimistic about the future of the think tank sector, a year on year rise from 45% in 2019 and 59% in 2020. 55% say their organisation is planning to recruit more full-time staff which is also a good indication of the health of the sector. This briefing note hopefully explains a bit more what lies behind that optimism and where the sector itself sees itself heading.