The 50 Most Influential Think Tanks in the United States

Think tank: The term denotes a group of people who are paid to do nothing but read, discuss, think, and write, usually to address and redress a matter of vital importance to humanity.

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!

You can think of a think tank as a research university blessed with a complete absence of students and where, as a consequence, none of its professors has to teach—all they have to do is research, research, research.

At last count, the United States had 1,984 think tanks—nearly a third of the world’s total. American think tanks are constantly researching solutions to a variety of the world’s problems, and then arguing, advocating, and lobbying for policy changes at local, state, and federal levels.

Some think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation, have become household names and are cited frequently by major news corporations. Others are cited by outside organizations less frequently, or perhaps not at all, but publish their own articles and books for a select—and at times even sizable—audience.

Some think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation, have become household names and are cited frequently by major news corporations. Others are cited by outside organizations less frequently, or perhaps not at all, but publish their own articles and books for a select—and at times even sizable—audience.

Accordingly, in choosing and ranking the think tanks on this list, we employed the following criteria, which look less at the intrinsic merit of a think tank and its intellectual program as at its pragmatic or “cash value” (as the philosopher William James would have put it):

  • The popularity of a think tank’s official website, ranked against all other websites, as determined by the average number of monthly visitors (specifically, organic search traffic), number of keywords/phrases for which the site ranks, and the monetary value of the traffic as gauged by those keywords. All these numbers come from SEMrush, and this is our master criterion.
  • Average yearly revenue (in most cases, over the course of five years) as reported by the think tanks. As non-profit organizations, think-tanks must make their revenue numbers available to the public; the greater its revenue, the more influential the think tank—other things being equal.
  • The average number of printed media references per year by outside organizations (according to fair.org and Nexis).

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

(Cambridge, MA)

The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was established in 1973 with the intent of analyzing arms control and nuclear threat reduction. Thanks to a sizable donation by the Ford Foundation, Belfer is now a permanent research center located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and has expanded to include research in the subjects of science, technology, public policy, the environment, and natural resources. Today, Belfer works towards a dual mission of “preparing future generations of leaders,” and “providing leadership in advancing policy-relevant knowledge about the most important challenges of … security and …. other critical issues.”

  • Political Orientation: Independent
  • SEMrush Ranking: 688
  • Monthly Traffic: 3.2M
  • Monetary Value of Monthly Traffic: $7,700,000
  • Average Yearly Revenue: Unknown
  • Average Media References per Year (by Others): <100
  • 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report Rankings: #1 (University-Affiliated Think Tank)
  • Notable Figures: Graham Allison, Stephen Biddle (former), Robert Blackwill, William Clark

Earth Institute

(New York, NY)

The Earth Institute was founded in 1995 at Columbia University in New York. With the belief that currently existing science and technology could be applied to improve the conditions of world populations, the Institute focuses on addressing important global issues such as sustainable development and the needs of the world’s poor. The Institute is composed of 18 separate units, all of which conduct their own research and writing. These include the Center for Rivers and Estuaries, the Earth Engineering Center, the Urban Design Lab, and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, among others. The Institute also regularly partners with similar institutions in order to specifically target various topics. Finally, the Institute maintains the popular blog “State of the Planet.”

  • Political Orientation: Centrist
  • SEMrush Ranking: 972
  • Monthly Traffic: 2.1M
  • Monetary Value of Monthly Traffic: $5,200,000
  • Average Yearly Revenue: Unknown
  • Average Media References per Year (by Others): <100
  • 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report Rankings: #36 (US), #5 (University Affiliated), #26 (Environment)
  • Notable Figures: Scott Barrett, Robin Bell, Michael Gerrard

Heritage Foundation

(Washington, DC)

Founded in 1973, the Heritage Foundation rose to prominence during the Reagan administration and the Conservative Movement of the 1980s. In fact, many of Reagan’s policies drew significantly from the “Mandate for Leadership,” Heritage’s official policy study. Since then, Heritage has solidified itself as one of the most influential Conservative organizations in the United States. Consistent with its interest in economic principles, Heritage tracks the yearly growth of federal spending, revenue, debt and deficits, and entitlement programs, which it then publishes as the Budget Chart Book and distributes free to the public. Heritage also publishes a number of political theory books, and partners with the Wall Street Journal each year to publish the Annual Index of Economic Freedom. Heritage’s current Board of Trustees reads like a “Who’s Who” of the new Conservative movement, and includes such names as Larry P. Arnn (President of Hillsdale College), Jim DeMint (former Senator and now President of Heritage), and Steve Forbes (President and CEO of Forbes).

  • Political Orientation: Conservative
  • SEMrush Ranking: 4.9K
  • Monthly Traffic: 279K
  • Monetary Value of Monthly Traffic: $392,000
  • Average Yearly Revenue: $112.7 million
  • Average Media References per Year (by Others): 1,298
  • 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report Rankings: #9 (US), #17 (world)
  • Notable Figures: Michael J. Gerson (former), Rebecca Hagelin (former), Edwin Meese III (former), Walter E. Williams (former)

Find the full list on thebestschools.org


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