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Think Tanks - What is a Think Tank?

Organizations Shaping Public Policy in Washington DC


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A think tank is an organization that conducts research and engages in advocacy in public policy in areas such as political strategy, social policy, economy, science or technology issues, or industrial or business policies. Many think tanks are non-profit organizations, while others are funded by governments, advocacy groups, businesses or private individuals. Some think tanks are clearly partisan in purpose. Others are more issue-oriented and promote social and economic reforms.

Think tanks in the United States study domestic and international policy. They supply experts to testify on Capitol Hill, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers and provide advice to members of Congress. According to the 2010 "Global Go-To Think Tank Rankings", the Brookings Institute was ranked first in the "Top 25 Think Tanks -- Worldwide" category. The rankings are based on surveys of think tank staffers, academics, and journalists. "Global Go-To" calculates that there are more than 6,300 think tanks in the world, based in 169 countries. The U.S. is home to 1,815 think tanks with 393 located in Washington, DC.

Top Think Tanks in the United States

The top rated organizations all have offices in Washington DC.

1. Brookings Institution - The nonprofit public policy organization is consistently ranked as the most influential think tank in the U.S.

2. Council on Foreign Relations - The nonprofit nonpartisan think tank specializes in U.S. foreign policy. Offices are in Washington DC and New York City.

3. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - The nonprofit organization is dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations and promoting active international engagement by the United States. The organization is based in Washington DC, with additional offices in Moscow, Beijing, Beirut, and Brussels.

4. Center for Strategic and International Studies - A public policy research institution dedicated to analysis and policy impact in government, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society.

5. RAND Corporation - The global organization focuses on a wide range of issues including health, education, national security, international affairs, law and business, and the environment. RAND is based in Santa Monica, California and has offices throughout the world. It's Washington DC office is located in Arlington, Virginia.

6. Heritage Foundation - The think tank does research on a variety of issues - domestic & economic, foreign & defense, and legal & judicial.

7. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research - The nonpartisan, nonprofit institution is dedicated to strengthening free enterprise and conducts research on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare.

8. Cato Institute - The think tank conducts independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues.

9. Peterson Institute for International Economics - The nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution is dedicated to the study of international economic policy.

10. Center for American Progress - The think tank focuses on public policy issues such as energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and health care.

Resources for More Information on Think Tanks

NIRA's World Directory of Think Tanks - A compilation of information on public policy institutes

Link Tank Newsletter – Sign up for a free weekly email that provides a comprehensive listing of Washington DC events from the region's top think tanks.

Think Tanks & Civil Societies Program – The program at the University of Pennsylvania conducts research on the role of think tanks around the world.

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