Academic journal article German Policy Studies

U.S. and German Think Tanks in Comparative Perspective

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

U.S. and German Think Tanks in Comparative Perspective

Article excerpt

Part 1: Theoretical and Practical Focus

"Will Germany's market-place of ideas ever resemble America's?" pointedly asked the Economist (2004, p. 29), highlighting Germany's pressing structural problems: "When a nation has produced Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, it seems safe to say that thinking deeply is among its strengths. But when it comes to reflections of a more practical nature, the German way of generating new ideas fails to reach the desired level of output." The Economist's observation was right on the mark, and it put the finger into Germany's open wound: Already from the hands-on perspective of then Federal President Roman Herzog, Germany's challenge is not so much to identify and understand its problems ("Erkenntnisproblem") but to translate this knowledge into practical action ("Umsetzungsproblem"), as the Bundesprasident gave as a reason for Germany's "reform block or stalemate" ("Reformstau") in his speech at the opening of the Hotel Adlon on April 26, 1997 (Herzog, 1997, p. 87).

1.1 Think Tanks' Relevance

The subject of think tanks and their appropriate role(s) has gained increased attention in the Federal Republic of Germany; especially since reunification, political practitioners as well as academics have identified think tanks as a priority on their public and research agendas. Research institutes in the German Democratic Republic have been examined by the Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat), and suggestions have been made of how to apply their academic contributions to the political system of unified Germany.

Moreover, the standards applied when reorienting and redefining the mission of those formerly ideologically tainted institutes in the New Lander to be compatible with the changing cultural, institutional, and legal environment of unified Germany have also become a point of reference and orientation for those organizations that were already operating within the framework of the Old Lander of the Federal Republic of Germany. Two long established and mainly government funded institutes, the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWA Institut fur Wirtschaftsforschung) and the ifo Institute in Munich, were especially concerned with these evaluations of the Science Council, because it recommended that they be cut off from the public funding scheme. This fate could only be averted by the massive intervention of the respective state governments of Hamburg and Bavaria. While these institutes did not vanish under this challenge, they had to readjust or reinvent their basic mission. Furthermore, as it became clear in many interviews for this study with other think tank managers, the example of the HWWA and the ifo Institute have obviously sent, if not shock waves, then at least some clear signals throughout the German think tank landscape and triggered debate about the appropriate roles of think tanks and the evaluation thereof by the Science Council.

The political issue of think tanks gained some additional importance because the overall evaluation of the scientific landscape in Germany coincided with the government's reduced budget flexibility resulting both from a global economic recession that had hit the whole European continent and the specific German challenge of reunification. In this context, the question of the most effective and efficient use of limited governmental resources has become acute. Not surprisingly, from a popular perspective, think tanks have become an easily identifiable target: While their access to public funding is well known, well publicized and often criticized by the media, many German think tanks' output and contributions are less noticeable in the public arena. In light of shrinking government funds, and the limited potential for government funding, the raison d'etre of think tanks has come under scrutiny, and think tanks increasingly see themselves in a situation where they have to (re)define and articulate their roles if they are to survive. …

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