There are numerous advantages to including think tanks or policy research institutes in policy dialogue. Thanks to their focus on research, evidence-based argumentation and their experience in communicating complex analyses to policymakers, the media and the general public alike, think tanks can indeed be very useful allies in INSPIRED processes. If they are perceived as sufficiently independent, they can feed the dialogue with the necessary data and analysis to create a knowledge base accepted by all the participants. On the other hand, if they take in charge most of these tasks, they risk interfering with the collaborative dynamics that are vital to promoting both ownership and trust among the other stakeholders, so the Dialogue Host must carefully weigh up the pros and cons of their involvement and, whenever possible, incite them to actively engage the other participants in their research.
Besides, the degree of impartiality of think tanks when it comes to policy monitoring – but above all in advocating for policy change– will vary according to their allegiances (to government, to parties, to business, etc.). Likewise, think tanks or research institutes that are attached to universities have mandates that restrict their activities to thinking rather than acting, while others define themselves as ‘think and do tanks’.
Another issue that needs consideration is the different dynamic and mindset that characterise the academic and policy professionals: whereas the first ones are inclined to searching optimal solutions, the seconds are forced to optimize resources and negotiate their way through political and bureaucratic constraints. However, the passage between both professions is quite common and constitutes one of the most salient features of policy networks.
As with the media, think tanks can be engaged not only for their expertise, but also as full-fledged stakeholders, namely in those policy areas in which they have a long track record of advocacy and research, especially if they have championed –or opposed– similar reforms. This would be the case if they are close to decision-makers, or they hold a high reputation due to the quality and reliability of their research. What seems clear is that, whatever their exact role in the dialogue process, think tanks or research institutes can sometimes ‘enlighten’ the discussions thanks to their focus on evidence, thus moving the discussions beyond interests or beliefs and helping the Dialogue Host to broker the knowledge exchange among the participants.