The world's most influential and elaborate think tank ranking included only four Russian thinks tanks in the world's Top 100, with the list dominated by American and European organizations. That’s led to debate about how Russia can make its expertise more in demand globally.

The 2013 Index of the world's top think tanks attracted attention of Russian pundits. Photo: Russia Direct 

On Jan. 22, the University of Pennsylvania presented its 2013 think tank ranking - “The Global Go-To Think Tanks Index” – with a list of the world’s best analytical centers. This world's most influential and elaborate index was also presented at Moscow Carnegie Center, where the lack of Russian think tanks in the Top 100 fueled debates about Russia’s influence abroad.

Although a number of Russia’s think tanks were included in this list and actually improved their positions in the ranking, some pundits argue that Russia should take steps to increase the influence of its think tanks abroad as well as to improve their image in the minds of Western policymakers.

Six U.S. think tanks rank in the Top 10: Brookings Institution (1st place), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (3rd), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (4th), Council on Foreign Relations (7th), Rand Corporation (8th) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (10th). UK’s Chatham House and International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) took second and ninth positions respectively, with Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and Belgium’s Bruegel rounding out the Top 10.

Meanwhile, only four Russian think tanks were included in the Top 100: Carnegie Moscow Center (26th), the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (32nd), the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (98th) and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), ranked 100th.

The index presents 47 different nominations and categories of think tanks depending on the region, research field and achievements. For example, this year the report presented several new nominations such as the best use of social networks, the best network of analytical centers, the analytical center with the most qualified management, the best idea and scientific paradigm, and the best conference conducted by an analytical center.  

Mention should also be made about the list of the best analytical centers in Central and Eastern Europe. It includes 11 Russian thinks tanks such as Carnegie Moscow Center (2nd place), IMEMO (4th), MGIMO (5th), the Center for Economic and Financial Research (6th), the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies (27th), and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), which ranked 60th. At the same time, RIAC ranked second in the category "The Best New Analytical Center."

According to the “Global Go-To Think Tanks” annual report, the global scale of the ranking is expanding every year. First presented in 2006 by the University Pennsylvania, the “Global Go-To Think Tanks Index” was a response to the numerous requests from politicians, journalists and academics from all over the world.

Its goal is to figure out the impact of the world’s leading analytical centers on society and government. The “Global Go-To Think Tanks” report describes its ranking as “the insider's guide to the global marketplace of ideas,” pointing out that almost 7,000 institutions from 182 countries were nominated in different categories, with more than 9,000 journalists, politicians, international observers and experts from different think tanks involved in the selection process.

As indicated from the report, more than 60 percent of the world’s analytical centers are located in Europe and North America. Yet one of the main goals of the ranking is to expand the list and include in it as many respectful regional institutions as possible.

To quote the report, its authors try to do their best to make the ranking objective and unbiased.

“Though each year our best efforts have gone into generating a rigorous, inclusive, and objective process, we recognize the impossibility of entirely ridding the selection of the world’s top think tanks from bias,” the report reads. “The potential personal, regional, ideological, and disciplinary biases of those consulted throughout the process may, inevitably, have crept into the Rankings. While some have suggested what we move to a small group of experts or a panel of journalists to make the selections, we are unwavering in our commitment to a rigorous, yet open and democratic process.”

The rankings’ criteria include quality of the management of think tanks, their independence and influence, political and international heft of their experts, access to political elites, high standards of research, the amount of articles, books, conferences and references in the media and governmental agencies, as well as the impact on the society and government institutions.     

Number of think tanks in the world in 2013. Source: The Global Go-To Think Tanks Index. Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko

The Director of Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitri Trenin, sees the ranking as both subjective and indicative for Russia. “The ranking points out our weak points,” he said while presenting on Jan. 22. “Even though all rankings are subjective, the fact that our important think tanks are not included in the index is a serious signal for us. And we have to pay attention to it.”

Trenin raised the problem of what hampers Russia from reaching global influence. The language barrier, the lack of consistency and coherence in research papers as well as the weak penetration in Internet and social networks remain the major reasons why Russia’s think tanks are falling behind.

“It’s not only [the lack of] websites and translation into English, but also many other factors,” he said. “Without translation into English we can’t become part of the international debate,” he said. He proposed to create a kind of informal forum that could bring together Russia’s experts from the country’s leading analytical centers on a regular basis to come up with thorough approaches of improving Russia’s record and influence abroad.

Trenin calls for “closer collaboration” and “sharing the experience” between Russian think tanks and their Western counterparts. “It is necessary to make Russia’s expertise be in demand,” he said.     

Likewise, the author of the ranking, James McGann, believes the only way to improve record and influence for Russia's think tanks is to "actively engage with the top think tanks in the U.S. and in other regions around the world" and "create both Russian and English version of their websites so scholars and the public can know and engage with scholars at the leading think tanks in Russia," as he told Russia Direct.

Robert Pszczel, director of NATO’s informational office in Moscow, echoes Trenin.

“Such ranking is a good start for discussion,” he told Russia Direct while describing the index as encouraging for those not included in the index to start thinking how to improve their quality and increase influence in the world.

Viktor Mizin, Deputy Director at MGIMO’s Institute of International Studies, agrees.

“We have to teach people to write in a certain way [to meet the Western standards of research],” he said. “We have to create a kind of coordination center.”

In addition, Mizin points out to the correlation between the images of countries and the number of leading think tanks. He argues that think tanks should pay much more attention to public diplomacy now.

“Even in comparison with Soviet times, Russia saw a decline in the field of international studies despite the fact we have high-profile think tanks such as IMEMO and Carnegie Moscow Center,” he said. “Unfortunately, the level of international analysis is declining now. It can be seen in the perception [of Russia] in the U.S. and Europe. From my point of view, the image of Russia is becoming more negative in comparison with the Soviet Union.”

Mizin relates this problem not only to language and the quality of research, but also to the lack of funding. According to him, Russia is lagging behind the West because there is the lack of different funding sources for research centers that are commonplace in Europe and the United States.      

When asked about the correlation between the image of a country and the amount of influential think tanks, McGann said that "there are policies and impediments to the productive flow of information and people, so it clearly helps to increase the image and profile of think tanks in a country."

"That being said, the constraints placed on civil society and think tanks over the last couple years has not helped," he told Russia Direct.

According to Evsey Gurvich, the Executive Director of the Association of Russian Economic Think Tanks (ARETT), Russia’s lack of influence in the rankings might partly result from unfavorable legislation such as the NGO law that requires organizations funded from abroad to register in the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents.”

“The idea of how to better present Russia in the world to attract investment may be not relevant for us because we should think how not to seek funding from abroad,” he said stressing that foreign endowment may put at risk some Russian think tanks and lead to an unfavorable reputation in the country.  

Mirzin looks at the problem from a different angle. Although the law on “foreign agents” is still relevant and may discourage Russia’s think tanks from seeking endowment funds from the West, Russia’s governmental agencies have more than enough financial resources to finance think tanks.

“But the problem is that we have money, but it is used ineffectively,” he added.