New book defines role of Canadian think tanks

Political Science professor Donald Abelson, one of Canada’s leading experts in American politics, U.S. foreign policy, interest groups and think tanks, recently published 'Northern Lights: Exploring Canada’s Think Tank Landscape.' The book is the first systematic examination of think tanks in Canada.

Special to Western NewsPolitical Science professor Donald Abelson, one of Canada’s leading experts in American politics, U.S. foreign policy, interest groups and think tanks, recently published ‘Northern Lights: Exploring Canada’s Think Tank Landscape.’ The book is the first systematic examination of think tanks in Canada.

If you are concerned about government policies pertaining to taxes, health care, changes in education or a host of other issues, you need to know something about the motivations of the organizations that have given birth to some of these ideas, stressed a Western Political Science professor in his newest book.

“We tend to talk about interest groups in Canada. We talk a lot about different advocacy organizations. But we’ve neglected to look at think tanks, which have really bridged two different worlds – the academic world, because many people who work at think tanks have academic backgrounds, and the policy-making world,” Don Abelson said.

“These institutions in our country, as in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries, occupy a very important space. It’s that space people need to know more about because these ideas don’t just come out of thin air.”

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Abelson, one of Canada’s leading experts in American politics, U.S. foreign policy, interest groups and think tanks, recently published Northern Lights: Exploring Canada’s Think Tank Landscape. The book is the first systematic examination of think tanks in Canada and follows an earlier publication, Do Think Tanks Matter?, in which Abelson explored the significance of think tanks more broadly, primarily discussing American institutions.

“(Think tanks) are definitely considered a U.S. phenomenon, but the U.S. experience has had a profound impact on policy institutes in our own country. My earlier work tended to focus primarily on the United States, but so little had been written about Canadian think tanks I felt it was time to delve into the subject more deeply,” he said.

The first half of Northern Lights provides a primer for individuals who might not be familiar with think tanks, offering general information and answering some of the most commonly asked questions, like, ‘What is a think tank?’ and ‘Are all think tanks alike?’ The second half of the book looks at 24 institutional profiles of think tanks in Canada.

“I felt given the lack of literature on the topic, it was important to try and look at what’s going on in our country, to look at the contribution these organizations make, both in shaping public opinion and public policy,” Abelson noted.

“Think tanks have taken root in virtually every country in the world and one of the interesting questions I had going into the project was the extent to which Canadian think tanks have tried to emulate the American experience. In some respects, they’ve tried to do that, but in many ways they’ve held on to their own identity.”

American think tanks, for the most part, govern themselves like Fortune 500 companies, he explained. They’re highly competitive, strategic and reluctant to share information with competitors.

Canadian think tanks, in large part because they are smaller in number, appear to be more willing to cooperate with other non-governmental organizations and with each other to try and provide policy solutions to complex policy problems, Abelson said.

“In Canada, we tend to think more in terms of a group interest – whereas the United States tends to focus more on the pursuit of individual interests.”

The question of think tanks’ influence is still very difficult to deal with. In Canada, think tanks have far fewer access points than their American counterparts who have multiple channels to reach different stakeholders, Abelson explained. In Canada, because of the nature of the political system, the access points tend to be far fewer. That’s not to say think tanks in Canada don’t have an impact.

“Some think tanks in Canada very few people have heard of because they have a low media profile none the less can have a significant impact on helping to shape legislation. So even though they’re small, by virtue of their expertise, they found a niche and have been able to contribute in significant ways,” he said.

For example, the Caledon Institute in Ottawa has five people and a budget of less than $1 million. It is an organization with expertise in social welfare policy, and they’ve done a lot of good work on advising key members of Parliament and successive cabinets on how to address child-welfare legislation and a whole host of social welfare policies, Abelson explained.

“They’re not media hungry. They don’t have a huge budget but they found an area to develop expertise and an area that’s profoundly important to the country. They provide a steady stream of information to people in positions to make important policy decisions,” he said.

In the United States, the focus tends to be on measuring everything – how many media citations, how often do they testify before congress, how many publications are sold, how many have been downloaded, how many followers does the organization have on social media. In Canada, the obsession with crunching numbers isn’t really there, Abelson continued.

“Canadian (think tanks) need to find a way into the conversation and the way they do that is by going back to the old tradition of think tanks, which is to generate sound and scientific rigorous policy research. We need to draw a distinction between policy output – what these organizations produce – and policy outcomes – decisions that government leaders make.”

At the very core of the issue is informing the public about think tanks and why the work they do matters, he added.

“If you’re concerned at all about the role of ideas in public policy and how they shape our everyday lives – whether those are ideas dealing with education, or transportation, infrastructure or commitments overseas, then you should be concerned about the various organizations whose raison d’etre is to generate and disseminate ideas. We can’t just look at the ideas – we have to look and understand where they come from, how they make their way through the policy-making process and the various interest groups that try to mobilize support for them.”