Collaboration between think tanks and universities can lead to stronger outputs, enhanced credibility, and better decision-making. However, hurdles such as unreliable funding and informal collaboration present challenges. In order to overcome these barriers, better communication, flexible funding, and support for capacity development are necessary.

[Editor's note: Shannon Sutton of the Think Tank Initiative edited a series on ‘Think Tanks and universities’ for onthinktanks in 2015. This is a repost of Shannon Sutton’s conclusion of the series. Please find the original blog series here. The full study can be read here.]

Collaboration between think tanks and universities can lead to stronger outputs, enhanced credibility, and better decision-making. However, hurdles such as unreliable funding and informal collaboration present challenges. In order to overcome these barriers, better communication, flexible funding, and support for capacity development are necessary.

As Peter Taylor observes in his first post in this series on the relationship between think tanks and universities, researchers from think tanks and universities are collaborating to produce knowledge and evidence – and get it into the hands of policy actors – in ways that might not have been possible had they not worked together. Through our studies in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, the Think Tank Initiative is learning that collaboration between think tanks and universities can lead to stronger research outputs, capacity development, enhanced credibility for both institutions, and a wider scope of research. And by working together to get evidence into the hands of policymakers, the media, civil society organizations and other actors, think tanks and universities can influence public policy debates by promoting more objective, evidence-based decision-making. The anticipated end result? Making a real difference in people’s lives.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There are barriers that can get in the way of successful collaboration between institutions, and several hurdles emerge as common to all three regions (further details of which can be found in Caitlin Myles’ summary document Understanding Think Tank-University Relationships in the Global South). In order to better understand these barriers, and how they might be overcome, this post explores the challenges that think tanks and universities face when it comes to working together, and draws from these lessons to identify potential ways forward.

The Hurdles

Mismatched ends/means: There are some key characteristics that tend to differ between these institutions. Think tanks focus on influencing policy through research on relevant topics, while universities involve a broader thematic focus and, primarily, teaching responsibilities. Think tanks tend to be smaller, more agile, and flexible, while universities are often quite large: as seen in all three studies, the level of bureaucracy at universities can frustrate both university and think tank staff when trying to work together. They also differ in terms of autonomy and funding (more on that below).

Lack of a culture of collaboration: As the studies show, collaboration is often informal and based on relationships between individuals. Primarily because there is no formalized collaborative culture between the two institutions, Myles notes that there tends to be ’a lack of awareness about one another’s strengths and a mutual suspicion of motives.’ Think tanks are seen as biased and lacking in rigour, while universities are viewed as out of touch with policy issues.

Inadequate and unreliable funding for research: Funding is clearly a major challenge in all three regions. Within both institutions, overhead costs are rarely covered by project-based funding and the funding that does exist tends to be unpredictable. Research agendas can be donor-driven and funding models do not always suit the needs of universities, think tanks, and donors. This is particularly problematic for universities, which tend to be highly bureaucratic and inflexible.

Limited capacity: Institutions in all three regions face challenges to recruit and keep excellent researchers, and human resources can be a major challenge. Institutional collaboration requires intensive project management, and both think tank and university staff generally lack the time to take on this role.

Moving Forward: Lessons for think tanks, universities and donors

Given that the potential for collaboration is huge, what can be done to overcome these hurdles? General solutions emerged from all three studies and can be grouped around common themes of communications, the nature of funding, and capacity development.

Ensure better communication and clear agendas: In order to overcome the “mutual suspicion of motives” and appreciate one another’s strengths, clearly defined roles are essential when engaging in collaboration. Communication can ensure that both institutions are aware of each other’s intentions as well as comparative advantages. There should also be an agreed-upon agenda. A great example is the memorandum of understanding that Indian think tank NCAER has with the Survey Research Centre at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Provide flexible funding aimed at creating incentives for collaboration: Funders should provide flexible, core, long-term funding. This will allow institutions to choose if they want to collaborate, as well as who they want to work with. As Taylor notes in his blog post, funding for think tanks should allow institutions to be innovative and nimble enough to work with universities on complex societal problems. Similarly, universities’ research agendas should not be determined by donors and funding to these institutions should be both predictable and flexible. Donors can favour collaborative work and design funding opportunities to encourage it, as TTI does through projects such as its Opportunity Funds. And there may be a role for policymakers to play: authors of the Latin American study propose legislation that provides incentives for private sector investment in research, noting examples of tax incentives in Brazil and Uruguay. Similarly, new Indian legislation requires companies to invest 2% of their net profits in corporate social responsibility.

Support think tanks and universities in identifying capacity development needs: Think tanks and universities should increase their human resources dedicated to facilitating collaboration, so this does not become a burden for other staff. Researchers should also be offered opportunities for capacity building and, as both groups require skilled researchers who possess the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to support good partnerships, they could collaborate to train one another’s staff in areas where they have a comparative advantage. An example of this comes from CSTEP in India, which receives research advice from the faculty at the Indian Institute of Science.

While a silver bullet doesn’t materialize from these lessons, a recipe for strong and more effective collaboration is emerging. Some clear take-aways, along with avenues for further research, surface for think tanks, universities, and donors– all of which will help these institutions in their objective to influence policy debates and promote stronger decision-making.