Globally, both universities and think tanks provide policymakers, civil society organizations, the media, and other actors with the evidence they need. TTI commissioned  studies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia to learn more about whether these institutions collaborate or compete, as well as where there might be complementarities. It turns out that researchers from think tanks and universities are producing knowledge and evidence – and getting it into the hands of policy actors– in ways that might not have been possible had they not worked together.

[Editor's note: Shannon Sutton of the Think Tank Initiative edited a series on ‘Think Tanks and universities’ for onthinktanks in 2015. This is a repost of Peter Taylor’s introductory blog to the series. Please find the original blog series here. The Executive summary of the study can be read here.]

Sound policy making needs a continuous flow of equally sound information. Many different actors contribute to policy processes and they all have their own particular information needs. While policy makers all over the world are often criticised for using evidence selectively when making their decisions, many realise the value of high quality data and analysis. Similarly, civil society organizations and the media increasingly want to access reliable and robust information so that they can participate effectively in national debates on policy issues.

So who actually provides the evidence that these actors need? Universities have long been seen as the key generators of research in many countries. But a shift is occurring. Today the institutional landscape for research and knowledge generation in many countries is becoming ever more varied, and more fractured, as different types of institutions join the field.

The Think Tank Initiative (TTI), supports think tanks, or policy research institutions, in 20 developing countries. We have seen that as the range and type of institutions doing research grows, competition gets tougher. It’s harder to find and retain skilled researchers who have more and more job options. It’s harder to get funding from donors who see an increasing number of good research proposals. And it’s harder to get policy makers to pay attention to a study given the number of other institutions producing policy research.

Reflecting on these challenges has raised quite a few important questions for us. By supporting one type of institution, is there a danger of unintentionally creating challenges for the other? How does selective funding affect the relationships between universities and think tanks – as collaborators, or competitors? Is it important to promote collaboration between these institutions? And when collaboration does happen, how does it help or hinder the flow of knowledge into public policy processes and debates?

To help us find out some of the answers to these questions, TTI supported a series of studies which looked at how the relationships between universities and think tanks play out in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. The studies highlighted the strong practical orientation and policy focus of think tanks, and the more theoretical emphasis of many university researchers. They also confirmed that researchers from think tanks and universities often work together because they share an interest in quality research which has the potential to influence policy making for the good of society. Think tank researchers appreciate the status that comes from working with their colleagues in universities. And university researchers appreciate the flexible conditions related to working with their colleagues in think tanks, as this helps them avoid the often heavy bureaucracy of universities that makes it difficult to kick-start time-sensitive research.

Although competition certainly exists between the two, the studies have confirmed that researchers from think tanks and universities are producing knowledge and evidence – and getting it into the hands of policy actors – in ways that might not have been possible had they not worked together.

So how can TTI encourage this positive situation to continue? We learned that several factors are important: 1) a culture of collaboration that encourages researchers to work with others and leads to better uptake of their findings, 2) financial support that is flexible and allows think tanks to be innovative and nimble enough to work with universities on complex societal problems and 3) excellent researchers who possess the knowledge, skills and attitudes that support good partnerships. These are just the high-level findings. In the following series of blogs, the investigators who undertook the studies reflect and share their own thoughts on what they found out – and on how they believe think tanks and universities can build relationships that help them achieve a whole which is greater than the sum of the parts.