Thinktanks ‘have stolen universities’ clothes’

Relying on academic research, thinktanks translate findings into the language of politicians and media, EUA president Michael Murphy argues – but not always accurately

April 23, 2021
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Thinktanks have “stolen our clothes”, the president of the European University Association (EUA) has warned, urging institutions to “compete” with influential policy bodies by setting up their own alternatives and better communicating with politicians and the media.

Speaking at the EUA’s annual conference, Michael Murphy, former chair of the Irish Universities Association, said that universities and academics must be more active in “public discourse” and be the ones “writing the op-ed pieces”.

“One thing we do need to think about is whether the thinktanks on which governments rely have stolen our clothes,” he told delegates online.

“Because over the years they have grown up using information that is generated largely in the university sector – not exclusively – and they have conveyed that information in simpler language, understood better by politicians, understood better by media.”

He challenged universities to “restore that role, that influence in social discourse”.

University representative bodies like the EUA or Universities UK do already behave somewhat like thinktanks, issuing reports and research with the aim of steering policy. But as lobbyists for the sector, their focus is on higher education and research, not broader policy areas.

Institutions could even consider creating their own thinktanks, Professor Murphy told Times Higher Education, or at least make sure that “our research networks adopt ‘thinktank’ practices in communicating their findings”.

Thinktanks – often staffed by former academics – had become so influential because they translated research findings into the “language of the administrators, the bureaucrats”, he said.

They understood the “dynamics of the political world” and the “frenetic decision time frames in public administration” better than universities, he argued.

As a result, thinktanks were now the “go to” when the European Commission or many national governments needed advice, Professor Murphy added.

But this was despite the fact that they “interpret, nuance and edit our outputs in a manner not always true to our views, often framing the message to suit the preferences of those who commission them”, he warned.

As a result, universities needed to “cooperate” with thinktanks to make sure their conclusions were “well aligned” with the original findings, Professor Murphy argued.

The conference also heard a call for universities to remain “temples of knowledge” and “evidence-based information” from Charles Michel, president of the European Council.

“As foreign interference and disinformation seek to infiltrate our societies, intellectual rigour will only grow in importance,” he told delegates.

As the pandemic had “upended” European higher education, and the continent’s democracies came under “increased pressure”, universities “must therefore continue to be home to academic freedom and democratic values, free speech, gender equality and fundamental rights”, Mr Michel said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Academics should not be expected to sacrifice the little time they have to conduct basic research for marketing their findings. Instead, they should have incentives to do more basic research, and the translation work can be left to knowledge transfer partnerships and similar activities that give researchers the necessary incentive through a teaching or leadership buy-out.
It is not just about communition. Academics are caught in the quagmire of the publishing process while think-tanks face no such constraints. People keep working on papers for ages to get published in topmost journals because that is what counts for their careers, when in that time they could be working on multiple projects if they just concentrated on doing good research and not just publishing in those journals at any cost.