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Monday, 6 February 2012

Billionaires Channel Millions to Think Tanks

Laurie Bennett 
Laurie Bennett, Forbes Contributor

Examining the social, political & business networks of the rich. 

Just as big money is transforming politics, it’s also helping to reshape American think tanks.

Members of the Forbes 400 have poured millions of dollars into research organizations that fit their social, political and/or business concerns.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has received funding from libertarian Charles G. Koch, CEO of Koch Industries, as well as from Richard Mellon Scaife, owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and heir to the Mellon banking fortune.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN10 - George Soros, Cha...
At the left end of the spectrum, financier George Soros has supported the Center for American Progress and the Center for Economic and Policy Research. (It should be noted, however, that his foundations have also donated to centrist groups and the conservative Cato Institute.)

In the middle, Bill Gates and Henry Kravis support the Council on Foreign Relations. Kirk Kerkorian, Haim Saban and Kirk Kerkorian have donated to the Brookings Institution.

The number of think tanks has grown from a few dozen in the mid-1940s to more than 1,800 today, providing wealthy donors with an ever-larger array of institutions to choose from.

And yet some still start their own organizations. Billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen founded the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, which explores ideas for good governance. One of the institute’s projects, the Think Long Committee, has called for tax reform to help fix California’s economy.

While the Think Long Committee has brought together Democrats and Republicans, some of the newer think tanks are unabashedly partisan.

As real-time sources of analysis and forecasting, these groups play an expanding role in public debate. Fellows blog responses to the State of the Union. Wonks appear regularly on cable TV to opine on health care, defense spending and other national issues.

Think tankers also contribute to mainstream media such as Forbes. Manhattan Institute fellow Josh Barro, for example, recently responded on this site to a Heritage blog post about taxes paid by the top 1 percent.

The commentary can easily become fodder for those trying to shape policy. Some think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress, have even formed separate action funds that advocate for specific policies and legislation.

In a recent article in National Affairs, Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, warned against the trend toward partisanship.

“I’m a full-throated fan of think tanks,” Troy said in a subsequent interview. But the price of politicization, he said, “is that some good public policy research is not going to be taken seriously.”

In most cases, research organizations operate as 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Donations are tax deductible.

Billionaires, of course, aren’t the only funders. Think tanks draw support from individuals, corporations and other foundations. Some are affiliated with universities.

But deep pockets enable America’s wealthiest individuals to have a growing impact in this world.

Calculating their reach is difficult, because think tanks do not have to publicly disclose donors. We approached the issue from the opposite direction, examining U.S. tax returns of foundations established by billionaires.

We found foundation grants to a total of 46 national think tanks. The table below lists these funding connections.

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