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U.S. defence contractor funded think tanks dominate Ukraine debate

Source: Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Think tanks in the United States are a go–to resource for media outlets seeking expert opinions on pressing public policy issues. But think tanks often have entrenched stances; a growing body of research has shown that their funders can influence their analysis and commentary. This influence can include censorship — both self-censorship and more direct censoring of work unfavorable to a funder — and outright pay–for–research agreements with funders. The result is an environment where the interests of the most generous funders can dominate think tank policy debates.

One such debate concerns the appropriate level of U.S. military involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since Vladimir Putin’s illegal and disastrous decision to launch a full–scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States has approved approximately $48.7 billion in military spending. Despite the very real risk that escalations could lead to direct U.S. military involvement in the war, few think tanks have critically scrutinized this record setting amount of U.S. military assistance.

Within the context of public debate about U.S. military involvement in the Ukraine war, this brief investigates Department of Defense (DoD) and DoD contractor funding of think tanks, those organizations advocacy efforts for policies that would benefit those funders, and the media’s predominant reliance on think tanks funded by the defence sector. The analysis finds that the vast majority of media mentions of think tanks in articles about U.S. arms and the Ukraine war are from think tanks whose funders profit from U.S. military spending, arms sales and, in many cases, directly from U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war. These think tanks also regularly offer support for public policy solutions that would financially benefit their funders without disclosing these apparent conflicts of interest. While this brief did not seek to establish a direct causality between think–tank policy recommendations and their arms industry funding in the case of the Ukraine war, we find a clear correlation between the two. We also found that media outlets disproportionately rely on commentary from defence sector funded think tanks.

 

Think tanks in the United States are a go–to resource for media outlets seeking expert opinions on pressing public policy issues. But think tanks often have entrenched stances; a growing body of research has shown that their funders can influence their analysis and commentary. This influence can include censorship — both self-censorship and more direct censoring of work unfavorable to a funder — and outright pay–for–research agreements with funders. The result is an environment where the interests of the most generous funders can dominate think tank policy debates.

The vast majority of media mentions of think tanks in articles about U.S. arms and the Ukraine war are from think tanks whose funders profit from U.S. military spending, arms sales and, in many cases, directly from U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war.

The analysis offers a number of key findings.

First, of the 27 think tanks whose donors could be identified, 21 received funding from the defence sector (77 percent). Unfortunately, because donor disclosure is voluntary, we cannot determine the percentage of think tank funding that is derived from defence contractors.

Second, in articles related to U.S. military involvement in Ukraine media outlets have cited think tanks with financial backing from the defence industry 85 percent of the time, or seven times as often as think tanks that do not accept funding from Pentagon contractors.

Third, despite a general trend towards greater donor transparency at think tanks, nearly a third of the top U.S. foreign policy think tanks still do not provide the public with information about their funders.

Fourth, media outlets rarely identify conflicts of interest posed by experts they cite from defence industry funded think tanks in cases where they offer their opinions on policies that would benefit the defence industry.

 

Read the full analysis – visit the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft website.

 

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