AEI’s reputation as a Community of Scholars

The view of a scholar

Karlyn Bown

I have no idea of the politics of my colleagues

This was one of Karlyn Bowman’s most eloquent expressions of the American Enterprise Institute’s adamant defense of scholar independence. In a very clear narrative that represents fellows as insulated researchers deciding their subjects autonomously and only occasionally sharing their expertise for larger projects, Ms. Bowman insisted her Department ‘met once [in the eighties] and never decided to meet again’.

When asked about the emerging agenda for more transparency in Think Tanks, Ms. Bowman was skeptical about the added value of both disclosing the identity of donors and the allocation of financial resources to specific projects, and considered transparency advocacy a ‘recurring wave’. In fact, she insisted, total disclosure can harm the impartiality of staffers, who are currently advancing their work with no strings attached.

I have no idea who funds me; and I’m lucky I’m not asked to do fundraising.

When I asked her what would AEI management decide to do if a hypothetical foundation were to donate a large sum under a set of requirements, including the celebration of events on predefined topics, Bowman was categorical: ‘we don’t do that’. With a base of about 1,000 between corporate and individual donors, plus its endowment, AEI has preferred to stay small and to do research that is relevant in the long term, as opposed to more advocacy oriented organizations who are ‘harming the environment’.

The institutional view

American Enterprise Institute

The notion of credibility that the American Enterprise Institute pushes to embody is unique for several reasons. Firstly, there is an interesting combination between the claim of non-partisanship and rotund ideological embracement: AEI is the conservative Think Tank. AEI´s form to balance this dichotomy has been to promote the atomistic autonomy of fellow researchers as a form of decentralized neutrality, and the stress on the negative impact of disclosure offers a slamming response to recent investigative efforts to put the work of Think Tanks under scrutiny. In fact, the Washington Post´s recent piece on Brookings can be used to measure the difference in their reputational brands. According to the report, Brookings donors often buy issues on the agenda (and this doesn´t imply that either research outcomes or impact enter the transaction). In contrast, AEI donors allegedly support the institution and refrain from targeting impact on the institutional agenda.

Although it still is hard to imagine how the public may contrast the accuracy of this framework without information about who the donors are, AEI´s Research Integrity statement does a very good job in defining an alternative to institutional credibility. I recommend reading the whole document, which is incredibly well written and opens with the lines that follow:

AEI’s operations are financed by donations from corporations, foundations and individuals and by investment earnings from an internal endowment. The Institute does not perform contract research and does not accept government grants. Its research agenda is determined by its president in consultation with its trustees, scholars and fellows, and academic advisers; the substance and conclusions of its research and publications are determined by the individuals conducting the research.

The statement also reinforces its tradition of impassion in the face of everyday politics:

AEI is generally prohibited from attempting to influence legislation in the U.S. Congress or other legislative bodies. Legal requirements aside, AEI has important reasons of its own for abstaining from any form of policy advocacy as an institution. Policy research of the kind AEI specializes in—emphasizing empirical analysis, intellectual depth and originality, unflinching criticism and concrete proposals for reform—is an inherently individual activity, best pursued by a single scholar (or a pair or small group of scholars) rather than by a committee or hierarchy.

Finally, the in-house recipe to control for conflicts of interest lies in four methods: diversification, disclosure, reputation and intrinsic quality. In particular, disclosure is defined as follows:

AEI scholars and fellows are required to disclose in their published work any affiliations they may have with organizations with a direct interest in the subject of that work. In the release of its products, AEI also discloses relationships in which donors have a specific material interest. AEI scholars, fellows and officers provide annual reports to AEI’s president listing all of their outside activities; the president then provides a summary report to the Nominating and Governance Committee of the AEI Board of Trustees.

Even if we weren’t to share AEI´s beliefs on donor confidentiality, their notion of integrity is in my opinion very articulated and worth of inspiration in other parts of the world.

2 thoughts on “AEI’s reputation as a Community of Scholars

  1. It’s good to see AEI contributing so thoughtfully to the debate on think tanks’ research integrity.

    Truly, financial transparency is only part of the larger integrity picture. Other integrity mechanisms also matter – a lot:

    At the same time, Transparify believes that financial transparency is an essential part of a well-rounded integrity framework, as recent media coverage of Brookings has demonstrated:

    In short, it’s not a case of either-or, it’s a case of A+B.

    For example, the European think tank Bruegel both has five-star financial transparency and strong additional safeguards. It fully discloses its funders AND posts resident scholars’ individual annual declarations of outside interests, including financial compensations and political affiliations, online:

    We’ll continue to encourage AEI to follow the example of Bruegel, WRI, CGD and many other highly respected think tanks and disclose who funds them.

    • Thank you for taking the time to specify your position! It’s great news that AEI is being constructively responsive to the push for more integrity and contributing to a culture of disclosure in the broader sense. It’s also important to remember they have a serious history of refraining from directly influencing votes in the Hilltop!

      Of course, I agree 100% to the importance of a broader integrity framework that includes financial disclosure. In fact, I am positive that in an institution where the priorities of donors are properly aligned with the common goals of internal and external stakeholders no researcher would prefer to be ignorant about who is funding the projects and why they believe in them.

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