Controversy over Google-funded think tank illustrates value of transparency
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The dustup over whether Google tried to squelch scholar Barry Lynn’s work at New America raises important issues concerning how many of Washington’s think tanks are funded.

Lynn posted a statement on New America’s website praising action taken by the European Union that ran contrary to Google’s business interests. Google – both the company and its chairman, Eric Schmidt – have been important New America donors. Schmidt was also New America’s chairman until last year. Lynn claims that his dismissal was at Google’s behest. New America says that it wasn’t.

For 15 years, I served as president of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan economic policy organization founded in 1942. CED helped design the Marshall Plan that rebuilt large parts of Western Europe after World War II. President Truman chose CED’s founding chairman, Paul Hoffman (then CEO of car maker Studebaker), as the Marshall Plan’s first administrator.

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CED was founded 75 years ago this month, and throughout its history, the organization has always prided itself on producing objective, fact-based, nonpartisan research and policy recommendations. When I started at CED in 1997, the organization had some 175 business-leader trustees on its board. Many of these trustees were CEOs or senior leaders from corporate America. The organization’s funding came from individuals, corporations, and private foundations. CED’s Research and Policy Committee (involving roughly 40 of the trustees) decided what topics would be addressed by CED and also formally approved the findings and recommendations of every policy statement before it was released.

 

During my tenure, CED produced reports on basic research, campaign finance reform, judicial-selection reform, fiscal policy, education, immigration reform, health care reform, corporate governance, international trade, and many other topics. Many of our recommendations were controversial, but not once did I encounter a situation in which a donor tried to block our work.

At the outset of each policy subcommittee’s deliberations, we started with a blank slate: there were never any pre-determined outcomes. The ultimate recommendations flowed from objective fact-finding and policy analysis that was driven by a trustee-engagement process. We liked to think of CED’s work as reflecting “the best of business thinking in the nation’s interest and not the interests of any one company.

Companies represented on CED’s board were, of course, free to express their views, but the process ensured that no one company (or donor) could dominate or skew an outcome. Diversified funding also helped. Complete transparency as to all funding sources was another key policy.

Washington is awash in money directed at influencingpublic policy and political outcomes. If you can buy a congressman’s attention with a relatively inexpensive, legal contribution from a corporate political action committee, no one should be surprised by attempts to buy off public-policy organizations. Members of Congress may actually be cheaper; at least the PAC money must be disclosed.

Tobacco companies influenced research on the hazards of smoking. Some drug companies have been less than transparent in disclosing their funding of supposedly independent, peer-reviewed clinical trials of new drugs. Other companies try to launder their political contributions through trade-association dues.

We also know that many of today’s think tanks can be classified along partisan or ideological grounds. That pre-existing bias may translate into funding from donors with similar interests. Unfortunately, the notion of a “sensible center” appears quaint to many in today’s hyperpartisan Washington environment. 

When research is skewed by political considerations or business interests, there is the distinct possibility that these research organizations will risk losing their objectivity, their credibility, and sometimes even their integrity.

Corporate support of think tanks and other public policy organizations is a good thing. At the same time, those organizations must protect against having the donor’s “tail” wag the organization’s “dog.” Guarding against undue attempts at influence will require a commitment to transparency and disclosure, plus strong leadership from these organizations’ managers and their boards.

Charles Kolb is president & CEO of DisruptDC, a new business coalition for better government and elections. From 1990-1992, he served as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House, and from 1997-2012, he was president of the business-led Committee for Economic Development.


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