The top 50 private sector think tanks and research firms of the globe

06 June 2016

The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, a research programme that evaluates the quality of think tanks and research organisations globally, has unveiled the latest edition of its ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index’. McKinsey Global Institute – the research arm of management consultancy McKinsey – has been named the globe’s top private sector research house, followed by Germany-based Deutsche Bank Research and UK’s Economist Intelligence Unit.

As it stands, the globe has nearly 7,000 think tanks – organisations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about a range of policy areas. Think tanks may be affiliated or independent institutions, and in terms of ownership can be either public sector owned or act as (independent) units of private sector enterprises*. North America has the largest number of think tanks (28% share of the total), followed by Europe (26%) and Asia (18%). 

Every year these think tanks produce thousands of policy documents, market analyses, research reports and points of view. The question however is: which think tanks stand out from the crowd, and which ones produce research which can be regarded as, among others, the most credible and impactful? In a bid to separate wheat from the chaff, The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP; a program at the Lauder Institute, University of Pennsylvania), in the research scene often referred to as the “think tanks’ think tank”, conducts research on the role policy institutes play in governments and civil societies around the world. The research involves a review of the output of all think tanks in its database, as well as input received from over 4,750 journalists, policymakers, public and private donors, and functional and regional area specialists.

Number of think tanks globally

Based on the combination of both inputs, the TTCSP evaluates the world’s leading think tanks on a variety of categories, including the quality and reputation of the research and analysis produced, the quality and reach of publications, the quality and reputation of leadership and staff, the ability to recruit and retain elite scholars and analysts, access to high-ranked institutions and/or policy makers, utilisation of research and the impact on society.

The latest edition of the so-called ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index’, now in its ninth year, finds that, across the board, the quality of research and policy documents is on the rise. More than half the think tanks are university affiliated, and close to 55% of all think tanks are in North America and Europe, with about one quarter of US think tanks (approximately 400 institutions) located in Washington, DC. Nine out of ten think tanks were created since 1951, but the rate of establishment has declined over the past decade in Western economies. Think tanks founded in this period are mainly based in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa – in particular Asia has seen a dramatic growth in research houses since the mid-2000s.

Globally, US-based Brookings Institution has been named the top think tank, while Chatham House (UK), Bruegel (Belgium) and the French Institute of International Relations (France) have been recognised as the top performing institutes outside the US.

Origin of top 50 private sector think tanks

Top private sector think tanks
In the category for private sector think tanks, the top spot goes to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the business and economics research arm of strategy consultancy McKinsey. Founded in 1990, to develop a deeper understanding of the evolving global economy and provide facts to inform management and policy decisions across sectors, McKinsey Global Institute’s work is funded entirely by McKinsey & Company and undertaken by McKinsey consultants staffed to MGI, just like a client engagement. Commenting on the recognition, Richard Dobbs, a London-based director who co-leads MGI, says he is “proud of the unit’s impact”, adding “We get to delve into issues that have never had a global, macroeconomic lens applied to them.”

McKinsey Global Institute has in recent years provided in-depth reports that covered more than 20 countries and 30 industries, assessing topics from job creation, to resource productivity, and the impact of the Internet. Among the studies produced by MGI are a study on the global economic impact of obesity, an assessment of the economic value added of the Internet of Things and a study on the costs to society of gender inequality in the workplace. Commenting on the obesity study, Dobbs, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary at consultancy, says: “We looked at the impact of the epidemic and more than 500 initiatives to determine which were successful in the fight against it. It was a challenge because the debate on obesity had become quite hostile and our firm serves clients with a variety of perspectives on the issue. We were able to inject facts into the global discussion. We discovered obesity costs more than war globally, and there isn’t a silver bullet to tackle the problem.”

MGI also regularly conducts research on the macro-economics of countries. The arm, for instance, recently found that China is facing a major innovation challenge, that the Saudi economy should sooner rather than later embark on a diversification strategy (consultants of McKinsey are in fact playing a key role in supporting Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with his plans) and that South Africa’s economy would need a massive investment boom to accelerate its growth rate. 

Number two in the ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index – For Profit’ list is the research arm of banking group Deutsche Bank, while the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) holds third spot. The top five is closed by Oxford Analytica (based in the US) and Japan’s Nomura Research Institute. The research unit of global consulting firm A.T. Kearney, known as Global Business Policy Council, is placed sixth, followed by three US-based think tanks: Google Ideas, Eurasia Group and EY. Korea’s Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) closes the top 10.Top 50 private sector think tanks globallyThe positions between 11 to 25 host seven research arms of consultancies – Strategy& (includes its Strategy + Business publication), IBM Institute for Business Value, GovLab (Deloitte’s arm that focuses on public sector policy), Boston Consulting Group (includes its BCG Perspectives publication), the research hub of Big Four PwC, Bain & Company (includes research conducted by The Bridgespan Group) and The Parthenon Group (part of EY). German management consultancy Roland Berger ranks 33rd in the prestigious list, followed by French-origin Altran (#34) and Deloitte, which holds 36th spot.

In total, twelve consulting firms have made the ranking, according to the researchers illustrating the quality of the industry’s thought leadership and the contribution the sector is making to economic and societal policy.

* In the methodology of TTCSP, think tanks broadly fall into seven categories: autonomous and independent, quasi independent, government affiliated, quasi governmental, university affiliated, political party affiliated or for profit.