CGD’s Think Tank Public Profile Rankings Are Back

Updated 3/18/15 to correct table 1

In 2013, our CGD colleagues Julia Clark and David Roodman designed a low-cost quantitative approach to rank US and international development think tanks by the strength of their public profile. Think tanks trade in ideas and ideas need to be noticed to be adopted. Thus, think tanks’ ability to garner public attention is likely to be a good marker of their influence and potential for impact.  We applied the Clark-Roodman methodology to create an updated ranking of think tanks for 2014 using social media fans, website traffic, news media, and scholarly citations as well as operating expenses as a measure of size. The Index looks at public profile both in absolute terms and adjusted by the size of institutions’ budgets and ranks think tanks in two groups: US think tanks and international development think tanks (both US and non-US).[1] See here for our essay with complete rankings.

Top ranking think tanks of 2014

The Cato Institute tops the budget-adjusted ranking of international development think tanks, followed by the Brookings Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Center for Global Development ranks fourth. The new rankings signal an improvement for both Brookings and CSIS, while Cato held on to its top spot compared to 2013. Brookings stood out with its high number of scholarly citations, while Cato scored highly both on social media fans and web traffic.

In the absolute international development think tank rankings, Brookings ranks highest, followed by the Cato Institute and CSIS, consistent with the 2013 rankings.  Without budget adjustment, Brookings stands out not only in scholarly citations, but also media mentions and web traffic; CSIS’s strong points are social media and news media mentions.

In the budget-adjusted ranking of US think tanks (all disciplines), the Pew Research Center takes the top spot, followed by the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are both noteworthy for jumping seven places in our rankings compared to 2013. For Brookings, the jump is due largely to the increase in scholarly citations, combined with improved web traffic rankings. Carnegie’s rise is best explained by the stellar six-fold increase of its social media fans as well as a doubling of scholarly references.

The Brookings Institution also tops the absolute ranking of US think tanks, followed by Heritage and Pew. The new rankings signal an improvement for both Brookings and Pew, while Heritage moves down one spot compared to 2013 despite ranking first in terms of social media fans and web traffic. 

Social media and web traffic are #trending!

Without exception,  think tanks have gained Twitter followers and Facebook fans since 2013.[2] The gains were large, with most institutions doubling their followings. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace increased their Twitter followers sevenfold (from 20,191 to 148,200). CSIS increased its followers tenfold from fewer than 10,000 followers in 2013 to more than 100,000. Other think tanks have had better success increasing their followings on Facebook. For instance, The Institute for Development Studies (UK) had about 6,000 Facebook likes in 2013 and now has almost 35,000.

Think tanks gain traction in the news media

In 2014, media mentions of all 36 think tanks in our comparison have gone up, with several think tanks more than doubling their citations in the news media. Among US think tanks, the Brookings Institution retained its top spot with over 23,000 media mentions, followed by the Pew Research Center, with over 15,000 and the Heritage Foundation with just over 10,000. Among think tanks with international development programs, the Center for Strategic and International Studies ranks second after Brookings, while the Cato Institute comes in third. The Urban Institute and RAND Corporation registered particularly impressive growth in the number of their citations, more than doubling media mentions compared to 2012.  

Impact on researchers and academia is hit-or-miss

A few think tanks increased their scholarly citations substantially[3]. The Overseas Development Institute more than doubled their citations to 653. The Brookings Institution improved from 1,960 citations to 3,755, retaining its first place in this year’s rankings. The second most-cited organization is the International Food Policy Research Institute with 707 citations, while the Pew Research Center had the third highest ranking with 701. As might be expected, a handful of particularly influential papers tend to drive scholarly citations. For example, eight out of 264 Brookings publications in 2012 accounted for about two-thirds of the organization’s total citations.

The value of think tanks’ work is being recognized — but not everywhere

Overall, most think tanks have increased their budgets over the past two to three years—over one-fourth of US and international think tanks in our rankings achieved a growth of 20 percent or more. The biggest spender was the RAND Corporation with over $275 million in operating in expenses, while the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies spent the least, at little over $1.3 million. The International Food Policy Research Institute had the highest jump in spending among US think tanks, with an 83 percent increase in two years. At the other end of the spectrum, the Canada-based Centre for International Governance Innovation spent close to 60 percent less in 2014 than it did in 2011.[4] The North-South Institute’s budget decreased by over 30 percent; it closed its doors in September 2014.

Objective and measurable, but not perfect

The Roodman-Clark methodology is of course not a perfect guide to the impact of think tanks, but it provides an objective and quantifiable scale to measure some dimensions of their influence and to adjust them for size.  It also provides some useful trend indicators, including of the speed to which new channels of communication are growing relative to traditional ones.  And there are of course other attributes beyond public profile that are important and valued by think tanks and donors alike, such as transparency, which is outside the scope of our index. 

[1] We measured the number of citations of 2012 publications as of 16 January 2015

[2] As measured on 13 January 2015 vs. 9 January 2013

[3] Several of the think tanks included in our international development rankings work on a range of non-development related issues; at times, international development-related research represents only a minority share of their activities. For example, the Cato Institute lists 66 “policy scholars” of which 13 are listed under “international economics and development.” However, as the influence and impact of a development-related research or division within a large think tank is very difficult to filter out, we considered the overall output and budget of all think tanks.

[4] This was due to a technical anomaly whereby CIGI temporarily held funds received as donations on behalf of another organization in 2011.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.