Although most of us have heard of think tanks, many may not understand exactly what they do, let alone the amount of influence they exert on public policy and opinion. On November 2, Dr. Samuel Gregg from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty explained the purpose and structure of think tanks to a group of University of Dallas students.
A Catholic priest and a layman began the Acton Institute 26 years ago with the goal of providing sound thinking in economics to religious organizations around the world. “Our founders felt that within the Church, there was not a good understanding of free market economics,” Gregg said.
The core of the Acton Institute’s scholarship is based on Natural Law Theory. “Most economists don’t know anything about natural law,” he said. “And most philosophers and theologians don’t know a lot about economics. Think tanks can help overcome gaps like these.”
Gregg explained that most think tanks have a three-ringed structure consisting of scholars, programs and media relations. The innermost ring and core of most think tanks consists of a team of scholars who research and write about issues important to the organization’s mission. Outside
the inner circle is usually a program group whose responsibility to organize and run events like meetings and conferences. The final, outward-facing group consists of a media department that presents the ideas of the think tank to the public and other important constituencies like government and industry. “This is a very important part of the Acton Institute’s vision,” Gregg said. “Because so many people get information through visual media, the Acton institute has produced three documentaries and two 8-hour curriculums.”
Gregg said that a think tank’s focus can vary, depending on its mission. “Many, like the Heritage Foundation, are focused on shaping legislation. Groups like the American Enterprise Institute are heavily focused on scholarship,” he said. “Others, like the Atlas Foundation, are think tanks that help other people set up think tanks.” A think tank’s focus, in turn, will determine the extent of its various activities. For example, organizations that focus heavily on impacting legislation will be located in Washington D.C. to be close to political entities. The Acton Institute, located Grand Rapids, Michigan, has chosen to focus on the spread of ideas rather than on promoting specific legislation.
Because promoting its ideas is at the core of any think tank’s mission, Gregg said that an ability to communicate clearly and effectively is essential to landing a job at a think tank. “Even the scholars who are heavily into research have media training,” Gregg said. “They have to be able to deal with journalists.”
While scholars usually have PhDs, Gregg said that there are many positions within most think tanks that don’t require advanced degrees. Areas like program development, media relations and development (fundraising) are open to college graduates from a variety of majors. “For the most part, think tanks are looking for young people who are engaged by ideas at a time in their lives when they have the energy to follow them.”
Gregg said that the Acton Institute hires 20-30 interns each year and rotates them through different departments within the organization. “By moving from department to department, interns can see the world of a think tank from the inside,” he said. “It’s really a process of discernment.”
According to Gregg, successful Acton Institute internship applicants are usually not shy, have lots of energy, and enjoy speaking in public. “And they have to be good writers,” he added. “They’re not writing for other academics.”
Gregg said that because most think tanks require their interns to do some kind of writing, students interested in a career at one should try to hone those skills. “Read a lot of good writers,” he said. “Ask yourself what makes them interesting. And the more you write, the better you get.”
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