How to work for a think-tank

Think-tanks can influence prime ministers. But in the ideas industry you need to be more than just a bright spark, says Tim Walker
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The Independent Online

Most of us think without thinking about it. Most of us probably didn't think we could make a career of it. But while you might think that the thought of think-tankery is all very New Labour, think-tanks exist to stimulate debate and influence government policy by generating new ideas, and as such have been around (in one form or another) for as long as government itself.

Tim Lawrence, 24, is a research assistant on the sustainability team at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), working on their 18-month low-carbon programme examining international, EU and UK domestic energy and climate policy. "Sustainability was a subject very close to my heart from a young age," he says, "and it appealed to my values. I studied geography at Bristol University, so I had the right expertise."

It is important for a young thinker to work in an area for which they feel an affinity. After researching the opportunities available to him in sustainability, Lawrence joined the IPPR on one of the many internship programmes offered by the think-tank and its peers, which is the main point of entry for the profession. He was even awarded a bursary to allow him to live in London while completing the internship, which led to his current job.

There is no well-trodden path to such an offbeat vocation, but the in-depth research that is bread and butter to most think-tanks attracts graduates and academic specialists most of all. The ideas industry also enjoys a high rate of personnel exchange between the worlds of politics and journalism. Think-tanks are businesses like any other, and as such need recruits with conventional management expertise, too, including those with experience of running their own businesses.

IPPR and Demos, the leading centre-left thinktanks, emerged alongside New Labour in the mid-Nineties and have previously employed the services of the ministers Patricia Hewitt and David Miliband, and the former No 10 strategist Geoff Mulgan, among others. Journalism or public relations experience, meanwhile, is desirable to a think-tank looking for new recruits in today's media-driven political environment. Demos, for example, runs a separate media and communications internship programme. While a head for research is vital for a professional thinker, the object of any think-tank is to exert influence on policymakers. Thus good PR and communications are at the core of the operation, and media exposure is essential to success. Most think-tanks hold conferences and other events to complement the published research and recommendations.

One of the youngest think-tanks is the economically liberal Reform, which publishes weekly policy briefings on topical issues to sustain media coverage of its arguments. Reform was established in 2002 by a small group of thinkers disquieted by the Government's emphasis on higher taxes and increased public spending. "Our mission is to find a better way to fund public services and achieve economic prosperity," explains Reform's director, Andrew Haldenby. "We're working on ways to reform the structures of the major services - the health service, education and crime."

Haldenby's former partner, Nick Herbert, is now a Conservative MP, and many young world-beaters rightly see working in a thinktank as a springboard to Westminster. "Most of the people working at Reform are at the beginning of their careers in politics and policy," says Haldenby. "They're all very good graduates, so I'd be deeply surprised if they didn't move on to other things. I, however, intend to spend my life doing this."

Tim Lawrence's decisions thus far haven't been particularly motivated by thoughts of a future career. "I just wanted to work in a field that I'm interested and excited by," he says, "and to know that I can make a difference by influencing the people that matter." But if he so chooses, professional thinking holds variety enough to keep Lawrence occupied for an entire career, especially working in a think-tank with a wide brief.

Jonathan Carr-West is the programme development manager for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), which means that he generates and oversees a range of different projects. The RSA's official remit, since its establishment in 1754, is "to embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine arts, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce". Its traditional focus is the relationship between business and social progress.

"You might say our ethos is that commercial activity and the public good needn't be antithetical and can go hand in hand," explains Carr-West. This ethos has a long reach. The RSA's work currently includes a pilot scheme in 50 British schools testing a curriculum based on competencies rather than subjects; a programme in two villages in Andrapadesh, India, trying to fund water supply and sanitation with a private investment model; and an investigation of the best way to balance international migration to the benefit of both the West and the developing world.

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