General John Allen gives a talk at the Brookings Institution. Image via ISAFMedia (CC BY 2.0)

It looks like lobbying firms aren’t the only places making big bucks to influence policy. According to an investigative report published over the weekend by the New York Times, many of Washington’s most influential think tanks are also being payed to sway politics.

The report claims that the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Atlantic Council have all received funding from foreign governments, in exchange for publishing policy papers, hosting events, and briefing high-level officials in the U.S. government about policies in line with these foreign governments broader goals. In total, at least 64 governments have given money to 28 American think tanks to the tune of at least $92 million.

Last year for example, Norway paid the Center for Global Development $5 million to convince the U.S. government to spend more money to combat global warming around the world, specifically recommending that Congress double its expenditures on global forest protection. Norway also also funded research on the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institution. Both think tanks succeeded in getting Norway’s policy goals regarding the Arctic into official White House policy memos. The groups also held events to bring high level U.S. officials together with Norwegian officials to discuss their shared policy goals.

Japan, Qatar and the United Arab Emeritus have also invested heavily in think tank programs designed to promote their own policy agendas.

“In Washington, it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts,” states an internal report commissioned by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry, discussing their contracts with think tanks. “Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.”

A number of think tanks have come out in response to this report, claiming that the academic integrity of their research has never been compromised due to these relationships. A statement from the Brookings Institution says “he article fails to paint a fair picture of Brookings and its foreign government relationships.”

“The article also misconstrues our role as a convener of public policy discussions by suggesting that Brookings seeks to provide foreign governments access to U.S. officials through its meetings and events,” the Brookings statement reads. “To the contrary, our purpose is to provide informed policy analysis and recommendations to policy makers and the public.”

However, a number of legal scholars have called into question this relationship between foreign governments and think tanks, claiming it violates the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This 1938 law states that all organizations that have a contract with a foreign entity on the basis of influencing public policy, register with the Department of Justice.

A number of think tank scholars also told the New York Times that the existence of powerful foreign donors creates an environment where questioning their foreign donors policies is discouraged, which could threaten the integrity of a think tank’s entire operation.

At the end of the day, think tanks in Washington have had to deal with the major decline in federal spending on research, which has in part made these foreign contracts all the more appealing. But in Washington, where every political activity is all about influencing policy, it may be worth taking a closer look at where even the most neutral institutions are getting their funding.