The New America Foundation, a prominent think tank in DC, is facing scrutiny over its decision to sever ties with a program that was critical of a major funder, in this case Google.
Libby Watson, writing for SplinterNews, notes that the exposure and fallout is all too typical of how corporate money influences think tank research in Washington. As someone who has followed the fossil fuel lobby’s funding of climate denial think tanks, in particular, I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, when public interest think tanks (and advocacy groups) have undisclosed conflicts of interest exposed, they tend to react defensively rather than constructively. In New America’s case, the organization compared the New York Times’s initial report to “fake news” and questioned the behavior and motivations of Barry Lynn, the head of the team of scholars who were fired.
New America’s president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter doubled down on some of these assertions on Friday. Interestingly, Slaughter shared more details about a process of pre-screening and advanced notice for Google that she sought to impose on Lynn, in this case for a public statement he issued praising an EU anti-monopoly ruling against Google. Slaughter says she had no intention to censor Lynn, but pre-screening and advance notice policies are often used to censor researchers, including at federal science agencies. Similarly, such advance notice processes have come under scrutiny when fossil fuel companies have funded research, too. Even under the best circumstances, including when the people involved have good intentions and feel they’re working in the public interest, such reviews encourage researchers to self-censor.
So instead of responding defensively, public interest think tanks should realize they have a problem and try to solve it. They surely can’t stop the influence corporate money has on politics. Many also feel they can’t afford to do their work at the scale they’d like to without taking corporate money. But for think tanks that do take corporate money, what they can do is make those funding relationships more transparent and free of conflict.
So here’s an idea for how the New America Foundation should have responded:
“The New York Times has raised serious questions about our organization’s funding from Google and how we treated scholars who are critical of the company’s actions. As a public interest institution that influences policymaking, we understand that responding to this scrutiny is part of our job.
“Think tanks and other groups that seek to influence policy haven’t done enough to examine the implications that corporate sponsorship has for our work. This is an increasingly fraught area and we need to do more. As public funding for independent scholarship has shrunk, companies have stepped in to fill the gap. In many cases, this has led to companies exerting undue influence on research and public communication from scholars. While we stand by our work and our decisions, we have to recognize that organizations that take corporate money to sponsor scholarship, including think tanks, advocacy groups and universities, risk losing public trust. We need to do better.
“In the coming months, the New America Foundation will create a set of conflict of interest and transparency policies that will govern all of our funding relationships. We’ll publish those policies in draft form online and solicit feedback and comments all along the way from subject matter experts, journalists, our peers, and the public. We hope that in doing so, we can begin to identify and implement a new set of best practices in our field. Our ability to serve the public and to continue to do good work demands it.”
Maybe the New America Foundation will get there. Maybe another think tank or advocacy group will first. But this definitely won’t be the last story I read about a corporate conflict of interest at a DC think tank.
Aaron Huertas is a science communicator and public relations professional who lives in Washington, DC.