In November 2006 top-class experts analyzed different approaches regarding the establish ment and the working methods of think tanks.
In the perception of people, 'think tanks' may be very different things – depending on the country or cultural area. A very common item in the USA, but not too familiar in Europe, where think tanks as the Americans know them are not widely spread. To explain the reason for this phenomenon, many top-class experts accepted the invitation of the Marshall Plan Foundation to come to Vienna on November 30, 2006 and discuss the matter. It is mportant to mention that some of the experts worked with think tanks themselves, reporting first-hand from their experience.
The discussion went from facts to theoretical assumptions. There are more than 1,500 think tanks in the region of Washington, D.C. alone, having a remarkable political influence. The better part of the political work of each US Government originated from think tanks. All over Europe, you can find only about 1,000 comparable institutions.
Think tanks should be mindsetters
Beside the positive aspects like the forward-looking ideas that result from the work of experts in such 'brain-pools' there is also some criticism. Steven Craig Clemons, executive Vice President of the New American Foundation and publisher of the popular political blog 'The Washington Note' mentioned that many think tanks in the USA are determined ideologically and therefore their outcome is quite predictable. A reason for that lies in a certain idleness. This inactivity is strange, said Clemons, because think tanks are supposed to be creative and establish themselves as mindsetters and 'brain work pioneers'. The modest diffusion of think tanks in Europe is connected to the political system. In the USA, think tanks provide homes for former high level government
November 2006 top-class experts analyzed different approaches regarding the establish officials who lost their jobs due to political changes. Think tanks also serve as training camps for future government officials – after the next change. In Europe, civil servants are responsible for supporting the governments and usually they keep offices after a change in government, so there is no need for a source of recruiting. Gregor Woschnagg, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Austria to the European Union, commented on the EU: 'About two thirds of laws within the EU originate from Brussels. So this is the field for think tanks to be active. There are about 64 think tanks with 'new thinking' operating in Brussels. But there should be more common work between Brussels and the member states. The goal should be cross-border think tanks with a strong link to Brussels.'
And what about Austria?
Ferdinand Lacina, President of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation and former Minister of Finance, and Erhard Fürst, economist and consultant of the Austrian Federation of Industrialists, Vienna, shared the opinion that Austrian think tanks have been influenced by Austrian Social Partners and closely cooperated with them. Erhard Fürst drew attention particularly to the compulsory membership of both business and workforce and the chance of their institutions to be more independent and run think tanks or brain trusts of their own. As examples he mentioned the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), and the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW).
For think tanks – the way they exist in the USA – it lacks the necessary funds, the clients and the donators.