Think Tanks in a Post-COVID Era

Think tanks, independent from government, provide expert advice on a diverse range of policy issues and products topics such as social policy, economics, and technology through interdisciplinary research. In the policy-making process, think tanks can play critical roles in stages such as setting the policy agenda, designing policy interventions, policy advocacy, monitoring the policy implementation, and evaluation of the policy programs. As COVID-19 devastated countries and governments around the world, it has presented a major challenge for think tanks’ continued contribution and existence. Meanwhile, as COVID-19 accelerated many of the existing issues including social justice, racial inequity, healthcare, education, etc., which were often overlooked in many countries. It has also created opportunities for think tanks to conduct research and provide advice on related policy issues. How are think tanks adjusting to the “new normal”? For Part 2 of our ANBOUND & ESI Q&A series, we discuss think tanks in a post pandemic era.

1. What are the challenges faced by think tanks in today’s world as unilateralism and geopolitical conflicts take a foothold?

Rebecca DeJoseph, Director, ESI: In light of the global shift towards unilateralism and protectionist policies, the role of think tanks becomes exceedingly more crucial. At a time in which the political sphere is encouraging policies that have been shown to decrease economic growth and increase geopolitical tensions, think tanks must be able to sift through these political narratives, discern policies that will stunt global progress, and react with sound academic research and reasoning. The greatest challenge to these entities is ensuring there is a platform available to share their research and potentially impact policy going forward.

Chan Kung, Founder, ANBOUND: In recent years, the waves of anti-globalization, the rise of new trade protectionism, and the outbreak of the wars in global market have effectively undermined all the previous successes in world development. This has resulted in all countries, with few exceptions, to adopt protectionism, and limit themselves to smaller areas, which has greatly reduced the existing space in global markets. Indeed, the shadow of the economic crisis now has engulfed the world.

From the perspective of public policy and information environment, if the government is the first channel, news or media would be the second channel, then, think tanks would take the role as the third channel to exert great impacts on social environment. Think tanks not only play a role in public policy research, but also contribute to facilitating the improvement of public welfare. From the Chinese perspective, upholding morality and justice (or ‘daoyi’ in Chinese) in today’s world is considered as a historical responsibility, a heavy burden with higher risks. The main challenge for think tanks in such an era is not to shirk this responsibility, as it is the fundamental raison d’être for those think tanks that are truly independent.

2. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in many ways, how do you see it affect think tanks, and what are the opportunities presented?

Jing Liu, Associate Director, ESI: I agree that COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of international collaboration of think tanks to deal with global crises. What’s more, COVID-19 pandemic also strengthened the critical role of research and knowledge to solve pressing challenges. Since the outbreak happened in 2020, think tanks all over the world have provided many researches and advice on medical response and healthcare system, which was only the beginning of the battlefield. As COVID-19 exposed and even accelerated many of the existing issues such as social justice, race inequity, gender inequity, healthcare, and education etc., it raised the demand for think tanks to conduct researches and provide expert opinions on those related social and economic topics, which were overlooked in many countries in the world.

Chan Kung, Founder, ANBOUND: The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fact that international communities should collaborate and coordinate effectively in handling a global crisis. In the post-COVID-19 world, think tanks will independently engage more in various communication channels across countries in the world.

Under such development, independent think tanks would access the equal opportunities that would lead to engagement in more domestic and international affairs, as well as for global policy-related activities, which would guarantee them with the right to provide professional capabilities in policy formulation. Independent think tank by definition, is a non-partisan, non-governmental, independently funded organization, with a neutral objective and stance. Due to this, professional opinions of independent think tank scholars can be more easily accepted by the media and the public. The policy recommendations put forward by independent think tanks have now become more important to policymakers. The insights and research from independent think tanks can benefit and complement government policy making strategies.

3. How can international think tank communities collaborate better and work with each other?

Jing Liu: With culture, language, legal, and time differences, international or interregional communication and collaboration of think tanks can be very costly and difficult to manage. If there was one good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, that would be the pandemic forcing societal changes around the globe and speeding up the worldwide digital transformation. Nearly overnight, all countries started to encourage businesses and organizations to keep operations remote through various collaboration platforms and video conferencing softwares. The “new normal” of virtual conferencing and the rapidly evolving remote working technologies broke the constraints of locations and opened the door for a new era of communication and collaboration through the internet. Think tanks around the world can take this opportunity to create more communication opportunities to develop trust, and further curate mutual interests on more research subjects. New technologies can be used to share knowledge and information in a more efficient way, such as developing cross-regional databases to facilitate more research opportunities and reduce information asymmetry.

Wang Yi, Head of Global Development Program, ANBOUND: One of the pivotal roles of think tanks is to bridge and connect the government with citizens of society. If the discussions and cooperation between think tanks are openly encouraged by the governments of all countries, there will truly form joint forces to cope with and to rapidly respond to the common challenges and crises facing human society, i.e., the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and other threats. In addition, climate change, internet governance, information security, digital crimes, public welfare and others are also crucial issues that these think tanks can better tackle under global collaboration.

With mutual engagement, team relationships, shared responsibilities, as well as research and technology cooperation, think tanks can produce more innovative ideas to resolve complicated international issues. This is true not only for think tank scholars from different countries, but also in diverse disciplines and fields of studies. Such cross-organizational collaboration will go beyond geographical limitations and transcend ideology. A policy proposal that encapsulates ideas from different think tanks will be more practical and pragmatic due to the diversity of voices and perspectives of its authors. Younger generations will bring new thinking to enrich research partnerships and networking opportunities. They have a better chance in developing trust, and promoting positive change in the future. In such a way, think tanks can contribute to better development of the world.

ESI and ANBOUND formed a strategic partnership in 2019, and are committed to providing research and consulting services to clients, expanding their horizons through in-depth international collaboration, and jointly proposing public policy recommendations and solutions for promoting high-quality economic development. ANBOUND is a multinational independent think tank based in China and Malaysia, which specializes in public policy research covering geopolitics and international relations, urban and social development, industrial issues, and macro-economy.

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