7 Dark Think Tanks Spend £22 Million to Influence UK Politics

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Who are the most opaque think tanks in the UK?

If you have been reading the series of think tank posts, you will be very familiar with the storyline. So, in keeping with tradition, this post offers some important observation and questions for think tanks whose work impacts on the classroom teacher.

It is somewhat troubling that Transparify have identified 7 highly opaque and deceptive “think tanks‟ in Britain that take money from hidden hands behind closed doors. Fuelled by over £22 million of dark money, these organisations collectively employ over 200 people in their quest to shape public debates and influence politics and [education] policies in the country.

Transparent or Opaque?

The new 2017 report by Transparify, an organisation that provides the global rating of the financial transparency of all major think tanks, is fairly damming of some prominent think tanks in the UK.

The report features a special section investigating how deceptive and highly opaque think tanks distort democratic debates and decision-making in the UK. It provides data on their known funding sources (including foreign donors), expenditure, and staffing levels. It also documents numerous incidences in which opaque think tanks have concealed the origin of their funding, advocated policies that favoured their hidden donors, presented flawed evidence, or generated fake news.

How is transparency calculated?

Transparify rates the extent to which think tanks publicly disclose through their websites where their funding comes from. They look through think tank websites and at the funding and donor information disclosed online, including in online annual reports.

Most think tanks disclose who funds them because they have confidence in their ability to maintain intellectual independence and research integrity despite possible countervailing pressures, and are committed to playing by democratic rules – no matter who funds them in any given year. In contrast, the organisations discussed below seem to lack such confidence, in many cases apparently for good reason.”

Transparify Report 2017

Transparify visited think tanks’ websites and looked at the funding and donor information disclosed online, including in online annual reports. Institutions rated with the maximum of five stars are highly transparent about who funds them. Think tanks on the opposite end of the spectrum, the funding of think tanks with zero stars or one star is highly opaque as they fail to disclose even the names of some or all of their donors.”

Who Are You?:

The number of think tanks at the bottom end of the scale has increased. Transparify found seven highly opaque and deceptive think tanks in their assessment, up from just four such institutions last year – and 3 prominent organisations who influence education policy in England

The following think tanks became less transparent during the past year:

  • The Fabian Society continued to disclose its funding sources in great detail on its website. However, it stated an income of £431,528 for specific projects in 2015/2016, while the items on the corresponding funding list added up to just £346,487, leaving unclear where some of that funding came from.
  • Policy Network did not update their funding information. When assessed, the most recent data available was from 2014 and hence somewhat out of date. In line with the rating criteria, Transparify deducted one star from their scores.
  • Civitas also did not update its funding data. When Transparify visited their website, the most recent data available was from 2013 and hence completely outdated. In line with our rating criteria, a 0-star rating was given.
  • Last year, Adam Smith Institute did not list any of its main donors, but it did list the donors to a scholarship fund it managed, so they were rated with 1-star. This year, Adam Smith Institute did not disclose any donors whatsoever, so it was rated it 0-star.
  • In December 2016, leaked documents revealed that the International Institute for Strategic Studies had secretly taken at least £25 million from Bahrain over the course of several years, creating a new rating category – “deceptive” – for think tanks whose disclosure appears comprehensive, but conceals key donor information, as this undermines the public‟s and policy makers‟ trust in policy research institutions‟ intellectual independence and integrity.

Fake News!

Policy Exchange’s website informs prospective donors that “our ideas have impact and that our research consistently makes headlines, influences the national debate and has its recommendations adopted into policy… We have seen our proposals on education, policing and prisons, the health service and community cohesion adopted by the major political parties and there can be no doubt we are framing the debate of the new politics. We know that the commitment of our supporters stems from the strength of their ideas and we strive to keep all our donors as involved as possible.”

Under the heading “Corporate Engagement”, the organisation’s website informs prospective corporate donors that “Policy Exchange appreciates the intellectual and practical input business can make to the wider policy debate.” Corporate donors can “partner” with Policy Exchange by funding research programmes, events, or its Business Forum which “allows participants to comment on key policy areas, contribute ideas and give advice to Policy Exchange‟s research programme.”

It then cautions readers that “we always retain full editorial control over all of our research… donors have no say over the outcome of the research.”

Transparify’s 2016 think tank ratings sparked some heated discussions in the blogosphere and Twittersphere about Policy Exchange’s influence on education policy in the UK, including through a regular column one of its staff was writing in the TES, a publication widely read within the sector. In a lively Twitter exchange, the Head of Content for TES refused to disclose the financial aspects of this arrangement.

The Policy Exchange website claims that “the authority and credibility of our research is our greatest asset.” According to Powerbase, Policy Exchange in one instance published a report that claimed to be “the most comprehensive academic survey of such literature ever produced in this country” and attracted wide media coverage. Later, the report was found to be based in part on “fabricated evidence”, and Policy Exchange eventually retracted some of its claims and removed the report from its website.

However, by then the damage had been done, as several newspapers had already churned Policy Exchange‟s faux evidence into fake news. The Times later acknowledged that its coverage had been inaccurate and publicly apologised for the “distress” its fake news had caused. It is unclear who funded the original Policy Exchange report.

A Way Forward?

Looking forward, Transparify strongly encourages all think tanks to put processes in place that ensure that their funding information is updated at least once a year. In the future, Transparify plan to include additional UK institutions in our rating sample. Transparify may not notify think tanks of forthcoming ratings in advance.

… In some cases, “experts” have been so introduced in print or broadcast that many people have mistaken them for elected members of our government. Yet, no, they are in fact funded by a group of undisclosed donors who, in return for their substantial donations, influence the political decision-making of the UK. (Graham Brown Martin).

The 2016 post is here if you wish to compare the results.

The full 2017 report is here.


A response from Louis Coiffait – Head of Education  – said: “there are quite a few education think tanks not included (not just us but EPI too) – not clear why, and also the wider range of organisations that influence policy and do/don’t call themselves think tanks – as mentioned here previously.”

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