Think tanks are crucial for advocating reforms in all types of societies and governance models. In Pakistan, the complete potential of these societal agents is yet to be reaped, given the lack of concrete ways to stimulate change by raising awareness of key issues, initiating discussion, and showing policymakers a way forward. They serve as a place for political leaders, bureaucrats, and military officials to get together and exchange views on policy issues. The think tank community faces certain issues which need to be addressed:
The Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research has in the past organised events tailored to critically analyse national interest issues and then collect innovative ideas on said issues from young researchers, policy practitioners, and academicians. Building on this experience, the Centre is organising an in-house roundtable discussion to explore the shortcomings of the think tank ecosystem. The discussion intends to detect the concerns of the think tank community in Pakistan and propose long-term solutions to address them.
This roundtable aims to:
All the attendees will sit together for a semi-formal discussion on the shortcomings of the think tank ecosystem in Pakistan. Once the issues have been identified, the discussants will also think of viable solutions to make Pakistan’s research and policy think tank community truly effective.
Research Fellow – Pakistan Institute of Development Economics
Program Coordinator – Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution
Ali Zia Jaffery
Deputy Director – Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research
Research Officer – Pakistan Institute of International Affairs
Policy Analyst – Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies
Sub-Editor – Institute of Regional Studies
Taimur Fahad Khan
Research Associate – Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad
Chief Executive Officer – Pantellica
Lecturer – Air University
Senior Manager Sustainability – National University of Sciences and Technology
Assistant Research Associate – Islamabad Policy Research Institute
Research Fellow – Roads Initiative
Research Assistant – United Nations Development Programme
The think tank network and the broader research community in Pakistan grapple with significant challenges ranging from but not limited to over-securitisation, inadequate resources and lack of access to a lack of methodological rigour. With this in mind, the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research organised a roundtable to discuss the roadblocks confronted and how they can be addressed. The Centre invited researchers from numerous think tanks, development organisations, and universities in Islamabad to discuss these issues.
A substantial manifestation of the over-securitisation of research in the country is the restrictions on access to primary data. Researchers across the board face this limitation. The majority of the primary data collected by most entities is red-taped. Stakeholders either delay or unequivocally deny the information requested by researchers. Moreover, research institutions also do not completely showcase their collected data for public consumption. If it is released, it is either largely issued in the form of annual reports or it is kept behind a paywall. Easier and timely access to relevant information will allow the resulting studies to be more factual and accurate.
The dominance of the mainstream neorealist paradigm has informed much of Pakistan’s policy research. Topics are more country- or area-oriented rather than being focused on a specific subject matter. A minimal and almost invisible space exists for alternative knowledge. Excessive securitisation of public discourse and information also creates a climate of uneasiness, eventually leading to self-censorship by researchers. They stop asking critical questions, which stifles their creativity and suppresses much-needed new ideas. Pakistan could learn from the international approach to think tanks where research is highly valued. This is reflected in the practice of having visiting fellows from around the world, including those with differing perspectives.
Besides, in Pakistan, a paradoxical interplay takes place between institutional and personal research impetuses. Such a dynamic leads to research parameters becoming constrained due to individual or organisational interests, with the latter being, at times, grant motivations. Therefore, funding constraints constitute a significant limitation for think tanks.
International financial institutions and multilateral donor agencies heavily populate the sector. However, there are specific state restrictions regarding independent outreach to donor organisations, intensifying the securitisation of research. Generally, irrespective of government or independent think tanks, ensuring detachment from the budgetary source of research projects can be an uphill task. A way around this issue would be to encourage funding by foreign donors but make the overall process as transparent as possible. In the same way, the state can consider allocating a budget for local organisations to submit unsolicited proposals related to specific sectors and the problems they have identified.
For most of the sponsored studies, rather than undertaking a critical analysis, a rosy picture is painted, which may compromise accurate evaluation. With conclusions predetermined, factual accuracy and the small nuances of research are mostly ignored. Such studies are mostly relegated to public relations exercises rather than explicit research endeavours. It sometimes consigns think tanks to content writing agencies and puts proper academic research on the back burner. Regarding editorial policies at the think tanks, most guidelines are developed with narrow thematic focuses, leading researchers to skirt around certain topics.
Essentially, the research landscape needs to improve its methodological standards, which hamper the overall quality, reliability and usefulness of the studies undertaken. Proposing quick fixes geared towards speedy solutions is a common trend. It causes the sidelining of systematic approaches, which may take time and effort but will lead to long-term policy formation. Conversely, external reviews of publications usually take many months, which causes hindrances in the research process and diminishes the significance of the investigation. Thus, a renewed focus should be given to methodological up-gradation and rigour. Think tanks must leverage their influence and offer practical, step-by-step, research-backed solutions to guide the policymakers towards meaningful outcomes.
Think tanks can benefit from systematic feedback mechanisms to assess if relevant bodies and policymakers consider the recommendations they put forth as a result of the policy-related studies undertaken. With feedback from the relevant stakeholders, scholars carrying out policy studies in these institutes will know if and how their work, which takes serious time and effort, has impacted the legislators and how it would lead to steps beneficial for the state.
Furthermore, many scholars working in the think tank industry are internally motivated to pursue research. However, if reward and restitution are deficient, an increasing passivity can be observed among them. In addition, research institutions need to undertake meaningful capacity-building of their researchers. Though frequent, relevant agreements are reached among organisations, they are mostly shelved and rarely utilised to their capacity. Hence, researchers should be encouraged to learn skills that complement their subject area and investigation ability.
Given the traditional hierarchical structures of most think tanks, there is sometimes a general disregard for the ideas presented by young minds. While seasoned professionals undoubtedly bring expertise to the table in advisory positions, emerging scholars have a responsibility to explore new investigative avenues. With their fresh perspectives and innovative approaches, these researchers can uncover ground-breaking insights and make significant contributions to their fields. Thus, it is crucial to recognise and support the vital role that emerging scholars play in advancing knowledge and driving progress in think tanks.