Dr. McGann’s speech at the 5th China Think Tank Innovation Forum

On November 24, 2020, the Fifth Annual China Think Tank Innovation Forum was held in Beijing, organized by the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) and co-hosted by Think Tanks and Civil Society Program (TTCSP) of the University of Pennsylvania. More than 200 think tank experts participated in the forum through online and offline channels, and 2.6 million viewers from around the world watched the live broadcast of the forum.

Dr. James G. McGann, director of TTCSP at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the opening keynote at the forum. The following is an abridged transcript of the speech, which has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to welcome everyone from China and the world to the Fifth China Think Tank Innovation Forum. Over ten years ago, I co-organized the first Think Tank Forum in Beijing, and then in Shanghai and Hong Kong for the last five years with the Center for China and Globalization. As you may know, I edit the Annual Global Go To Think Tank Index and maintain a database of over 9,000 think tanks around the world.

Dialogue, partnerships and cooperation in the face of the many complex global challenges we face are essential. This is why think tanks in China and in the US and around the world matter and matter more than ever before. That is why we must work to make sure that think tanks are fit for an uncertain future, which is part of our objective with this forum today.

The Think Tanks Innovation Forum focuses on the challenges facing think tanks in China and across the globe. As think tanks, we must face the reality that there will be no “new normal”, only a series of extraordinary events that will create a world where disruption and the abnormal will be the norm. Big ships turn slowly and sink quickly in storms. So only the innovative and agile will survive this COVID storm. The themes of all the past forms have taken on greater meaning and importance today, because their focus was on the necessity to rethink the traditional business model for think tanks.

The imperative is now more urgent since the winds of change have intensified and accelerated trends. As I will outline to you this morning, only those think tanks that are smarter, better, faster, tech-savvy, and agile will be able to weather the storm. The mission of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania is to help think tanks be prepared to survive this storm so they can continue to serve in the post-COVID world.

My hope is that think tanks in China will join the global community of think tanks and help strengthen think tanks not only in China, but around the world. Over the last ten years, I’ve been examining the forces that have transformed the policy environment in which think tanks operate and have forced them to re-define their strategy and structure. These forces are primarily driven by changes in politics, how think tanks are funded, and advances in technology and communication.

Over the last decade, there are four key trends that flow from the Fourth Industrial Revolution that will transform all our jobs and lives over the next ten years. It is these forces that are also driving the digital and political disruptions that are sweeping across the globe. These four principal trends are the disruptive power of social media, artificial intelligence, and big data; secondly, the dramatic increase in the rate of technological chain; thirdly, global information interdependence; and finally, the increased velocity of information and policy flows which has made possible by digital and social networks that are constantly being enhanced by new strategies and technologies, which in turn increase both the volume and velocity of information flows around the world. These new realities are making it possible to manage and manipulate massive amounts of data, which is disrupting business, politics, and public policy.

Henry Kissinger famously said that being a policymaker is like being at the end of a fire hose. The basic image is that there’s so much information coming into a policymaker’s office that it is hard to manage that flow of constant information. Today we are all at the end of a fire hose. And information is coming at us from every direction and every hour of the day. Policymakers are faced with a flood of issues, ideas, and actors, which has served to intensify competition, conflict, and to a certain extent, cooperation. This never-ending flood of competing ideas and information makes it difficult to process all the different ideas, options, and alternatives.

How do we determine which product or policy is the best one? It is no surprise that in this environment, traditional approaches in terms of ideas and information are often overlooked for the outrageous and the outlandish. These forces have created a crowded and competitive global marketplace for ideas and policy advice. This poses new and challenging strategic and operational challenges for think tanks.

In the last four years, these trends that I’ve outlined above have been compounded by two new forces that have intensified and accelerated the winds of change and are likely to transform think tanks, policy advice, and public policy itself in ways that we previously could not imagine. One is the effort to discredit and undermine experts, policy advice and think tanks. The second is the COVID-19 pandemic. These two additional trends have accelerated and compounded the transformation that is taking place and will force all think tanks to respond. The dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us and will require think tanks to manage change, access policy issues and trends, and make recommendations more quickly than ever before.

The pandemic has intensified these requirements. Never have think tanks of all types of size felt so much pressure to rethink how they operate to fit changing requirements. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased velocity of information and policymaking will continue to accelerate factors like digitalization, globalization, automatization, and analytics. What this means is that think tanks must become, as I have suggested earlier, smarter, better, faster, and more digital, and more adaptive, and agile. If they have any hope of surviving, think tanks must rethink how they think about policy and policy advice.

I will now turn to a few remarks about China and the data that we have collected. For many years, there has been almost no data about the number and type of think tanks in China. In fact, the numbers varied widely. We have spent the last six months on intensive data collection, updating the entire global TTCSP database, and have made an intensive effort in collecting data in China. There are now over 9,000 think tanks that are in our database. And we have collected in a very systematic way and identified 1,415 think tanks in China. This reflects a dramatic increase in the number of think tanks in China and constitutes the most significant number of think tanks among the think tank leaders or leader countries in Asia, India, Korea, Japan, Australia, and Vietnam. Over 600 think tanks have been established in China since 2000. While we have extensive data on 2,500 think tanks from around the world, meaning staff size,budget size, description of the programs – which institutions in every region have readily provided us – there are many blanks, many gaps in the information that we have on Chinese think tanks, specifically on staffing size, budget, and even basic information about their research program. This is a huge information gap. And the missing information highlights the lack of transparency surrounding the nature and operations of think tank in China.

Thirdly, the largest number of think tanks is still in Beijing, outnumbering the rest of think tanks proportionally in every other city in China. There are, as I said, 500 think tanks in Beijing, which makes up about 1/3 of the total think tanks in China. It makes sense because Beijing is the political center, but more cities need to create think tanks to help them with their regional and provincial issues.

Areas for improvement: first, the vast majority of think tanks in China do not have a functional website. Those that do are not updated on a regular basis. Scholars and research programs are not listed. And there are no context for key staff and scholars. The majority of think tanks do not have websites in both Chinese and English, or for that matter, in any other language. If the aspiration is to create great think thanks in China and to have influence around the world, English and multilingual websites are essential.

The last two points I think are fundamental and require attention for the reform and modernization of think tanks in China. One, the lack of access to data by scholars at think tanks undermines the credibility of what is produced. Many scholars at think tanks in China regularly complain to ministries and other government agencies, that they have little or no access to the critical data that they need for their research. Finally, there is a severe lack of adherence to basic social science research standards, meaning access to data, the ability to replicate studies that are produced. All of these basic, universal, internationally accepted standards are not practiced in China. And that needs to change if Chinese think tanks are to be smarter better, faster, and to have national, regional, and global impact.

Several key points in a broader context that will influence all think tanks as a result of COVID-19. As I’ve alluded to, the disruptive and transformative dimensions this crisis will have and will continue to alter all aspects of our lives and livelihoods. We will not return to a new normal or any normal after this crisis. It is so transformative. The crisis has become the great accelerator, transformer and terminator. What I mean by that is changes are accelerated, institutions are transformed, and many institutions will cease to exist as a result of this pandemic. 25% to 30% of certain organizations, private enterprises, and think tanks will close and not reopen.

At a time when governments will face decimated budgets while facing rising social, political, and economic challenges. Those institutions that have taken steps, and this is important, and the key message of think tanks in China, those institutions that have taken steps to modernize their operations and implement digital and other strategies are more likely to survive the crisis. Key sectors such as higher education, medicine, travel, and leisure, and information-based organizations will be most adversely affected. This crisis and the economic impact are different than past economic downturns. Because in the past, the negative economic impact of a downturn – such as during the oil crisis and the 2008 economic crisis  – hit both the rich and the middle class at about the same level, albeit differently. The COVID-19 crisis has widened the gap and created a huge gap between the rich and the poor that is likely to have long term and destabilizing effects in countries around the world. Like all great wars, this crisis will create a global power shift. China at the moment seems to be the only country, ironically, that is emerging from this crisis in a commanding economic position, which is likely to have global and geopolitical impact.

Finally, and most importantly, this is a wakeup call for all organizations to accelerate modernization and reform, if no other reason than their very survival. Every organization must have as its goal to be smarter, better, faster, more agile, and more digital. After hearing what I just said, you might think I am a pessimist, or defeatist, or both. But no, I’m a pragmatist that believes that in every challenge there is an opportunity. And if we come together as a community of think tanks and innovate and cooperate, we will beat this invisible disease and be better for it.


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