“Think tanks” are supposed to be quasi-academic (by that I mean, they don’t offer classes) institutions where intelligent people conduct research into social and economic policy issues to inform the public debate and, to an extent, influence the course of policy-making. I used to work at the oldest, largest and most prestigious of these, the Brookings Institution.
Most of these have a certain political bent (how can they not?), but still in all, they offer opinions and policy recommendations based on data, not ideology. However, some of them are just opinion mills, places where so-called researchers are paid by benefactors of a certain political stripe to crank out “policy” papers that are really just polemics (or diatribes).
The Heritage Foundation is one such, probably the biggest such. It was once a policy shoppe, but one dedicated to generating conservative ideas (hard righters like Joe Coors – money – and Paul Weyrich – ideas – were founders), although, as you may know already, the program that became Obamacare started there. It has now slid into hackdom, from my perspective, under the reign of former Sen. Jim DeMint.
There are actually a lot of bogus “think tanks” scattered across the country in a network of organizations intent upon winning political battles by providing academic window-dressing to ideological thought. The Center for Media and Democracy this month released a report, described in this piece in Salon about the network of state-level organizations funded by the Brothers Koch and their ilk whose intent is to press their agenda at the state legislative level, where they can work with less visibility than in D.C., hoping to create a platform for later action at the federal level.
The story and the report are well worth reading.