How German think tanks emerged and where they are heading
by Martin Thunert
Think tanks are not a new phenomenon in Germany, but their number, status and public visibility have increased significantly since the late 20th century. In terms of the number, size, resources, and diversity of think tanks, Germany no longer needs to hide behind other countries.
How German think tanks emerged
The first think tank— today is the Kiel Institute of World Economics—opened its doors in imperial Germany around 1914. After World War II, the first public-policy research institutes—as think tanks were known then—started to blossom in West Germany from the 1960s. In addition, the (West) German system of government started to grow numerous semi-official bodies for policy advice and ministerial research, most of which were staffed by university academics, by permanent specialist civil servants, and even by representatives of special interest groups.
As a consequence, policy advice in Germany became highly institutionalized in some policy areas (e.g., economic and fiscal policy), and increasingly so in environmental and climate change policy, but less so in foreign and security policy or in highly dynamic policy fields such as digitization or artificial intelligence. Still, the (West) German think tank scene before the beginning of the 21st century was often characterized as “technocratic” and not very exciting.
The reason for this “dull pragmatism” can be found in Germany’s broken 20th century history, when scientific knowledge and scholarship were often oppressed or abused by authoritarian regimes, causing a reluctance on the part of most German think tanks to proactively engage in policy advocacy.
Indeed, German think tanks have been especially proud of their research activities and the production of scholarly policy analyses, a strong self-perception of adherence to “Wissenschaftlichkeit” (read: soundness of disinterested, scholarly research). A partisan label, or being seen as meddling with politics by engaging in policy advocacy, would be seen by many of in the sector more as a stigma than as a fair assessment of a think tank’s mandate.
The German think tank sector in the 21st century
A quarter-century after German unification moved the nation’s capital from Bonn to Berlin in 1999/2000, the German think tank landscape has become much more diverse and, in many ways, more vibrant, as many institutes have assumed more proactive communicative roles. In addition, most, if not all, institutes now accept the “think tank” label.
According to surveys conducted at the University of Pennsylvania by the late James McGann and researchers of the platform On Think Tanks, Germany is said to have the fourth or fifth largest think tank sector in the world. Although there is no clear demarcation from other types of institutions, these estimates suggest that there are slightly over 200 think tanks operating in Germany.
While only a few German think tanks can adequately be described as arms-length government institutions, many institutes receive funding from the public purse—some with annual budgets of well above €10 million—and/or operate under public sector guidelines. But more recently, a growing number of privately funded think tanks have further enlivened the German think tank scene. Some of the larger institutes in this category are funded and/or operated by a group of well-endowed philanthropic foundations from Germany, Europe, and the United States.
Thus, Germany is now home to several influential think tanks, both within and beyond its borders, that have managed to carve out a niche on the policy landscape. For example, Germany features a considerable number of academic think tanks, many of them non-university research institutes such as the Max Planck Institutes, Leopoldina, the Leibniz Society, and the Fraunhofer institutes, all of which enjoy a high international reputation and are increasingly fulfilling policy advisory functions.
Several German think tanks working in the fields of climate, environment, and sustainability are among the top-ranked in their field internationally. Berlin in particular is now a hub of international affairs–oriented think tanks—both German and foreign. A special feature of Germany’s think tank scene is the think tank-and-consulting units of the so-called political foundations (parteinahe Stiftungen). These “foundations” are not legally affiliated with Germany’s political parties, but they are clearly attached to their surroundings. They are funded by the state based on their respective party’s electoral wins in national parliamentary elections over the past two electoral cycles.
Three ways for German think tanks to increase policy impact
It is very difficult to make across-the-board statements about the performance (in terms of, policy influence and impact on public discourses) of German think tanks. A major problem in measuring performance and impact is that of attribution. Only in the rarest of circumstances can a policy that is implemented be credited to the research or recommendations of a particular think tank. Policy input comes from many places.
This article suggests three ways for think tanks in Germany and beyond to increase their influence on policy and shape public opinion:
1. Choice of topic and soundness of work
The first way—often referred to as “indirect,” because it focuses both on policy details and on changing the climate of opinion on specific policy issues—is to pursue a policy-relevant line of research that has implications for the way the public—especially policymakers, journalists, and civil society organizations—address and try to solve particular problems. With their emphasis on the soundness of their academic work and scholarly credentials (Wissenschaftlichkeit) many German think tanks are said to do quite well in this regard; however, they often struggle to communicate their findings effectively to a wider audience in Germany and beyond. Because their reports are often as rigorous as academic research, it is a huge challenge to make them accessible for their various audiences.
2. Use of direct contacts to governmental actors
Think tanks can attempt to take their knowledge and recommendations directly to government. This path of “revolving doors” is more open to think tanks and their senior staff in the U.S. than anywhere else, but it could be adapted to the German situation, for instance by integrating think tank researchers into units of institutionalized policy advice. By being in constant, direct contact with policymakers, think tanks need to ensure that their evidence-based research is used effectively in policymaking processes.
3. Use effective convening formats
Think tanks need to extend their role beyond that of conducting research, analyzing and identifying policy problems, or sharing policy ideas. For example, think tanks also have the ability to convene meetings of different groups at conferences, seminars, and workshops—to connect people and to facilitate dialogue. As conveners, think tanks can build bridges among diverse groups such as policymakers, non-governmental organizations/civil society, academics, business leaders, and the media. Think tanks do not have to be organized in faculty structures like universities and some academies. They can orient their structure and daily work to the problems and issues that require solutions. Think tanks are generally not bound by directives like some internal government advisory bodies.
There is a change in funding sources and in management underway within German think tanks. More and more funding is coming from private sources such as philanthropic foundations. In addition, as the millennial generation takes over the management of think tanks from boomers more think tanks in Germany will identify as being part of civil society — perhaps closer to the world of NGOs and advocacy organizations, than to universities and government. For the future development of German think tanks, it will be crucial to adapt to changing funding sources and related changes in affiliation.
Senior Research Lecturer/Associate Professor in Political Science and North American Studies at Heidelberg University
Martin Thunert is Senior Research Lecturer/ Associate Professor in Political Science and North American Studies at Heidelberg University. His research interests lie in comparative politics – with a regional concentration on North America, Germany and Britain and a particular focus on policy advisory organisations like think tanks, political consultancies and philanthropic foundations as well as on transatlantic relations and security policy. His interest in the role of think tanks was triggered during a fellowship as a staff member in the United States Senate. Thunert is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Bertelsmann Foundation project Sustainable Governance Indicators(www.sgi-network.org) . He is co-editor of the revised new edition of the Handbuch Politikberatung (Springer VS 2019) and has completed a research project entitled Patterns of Policy Advice in Economic Policy Consultation in the US and Germany.