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The Political War Over Think Tanks The Political War Over Think Tanks

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The Political War Over Think Tanks

The Heritage Foundation's fight with critics over its immigration report shows how politicized the battle over research has become.


Robert Rector, author of a Heritage Foundation report on immigration amnesty, right, watches as Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, speaks during a May 6 news conference.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Heritage Foundation found itself embroiled in controversy over its immigration reform report Wednesday, forced to fend off attacks about its methodology and defend itself from criticism that one of the report’s co-authors once wrote that Hispanic immigrants are less intelligent than white Americans.

The campaign-style back-and-forth shouldn’t come as a surprise for people monitoring the think tank landscape in Washington. Former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, known best as a conservative stalwart in the Senate, now heads up the organization, and he appeared on ABC’s “This Week” ahead of the study’s release. Plenty of conservatives criticized its findings, as Heritage and Sen. Marco Rubio traded barbs.


Then there was the revelation, first reported by The Washington Post Wednesday, that one of the study’s co-authors penned a 2009 Harvard University dissertation making connecting race, genetics and IQ levels.

It all underscores the continued politicization of Washington’s think tank world, once considered a place where academics pored over public policy research, rather than provided studies to feed talking points. The move has been happening over many years, and it’s a bipartisan phenomenon. There are liberal organizations, such as the Center for American Progress, which began in 2003 largely as the left’s answer to Heritage. CAP has likewise played a major role in policy debates along with politics. CAP has long had its Center for American Progress Action Fund. Heritage launched its 501(c)4 in 2010.

“Having worked in the White House and having Democratic friends, I can say you are better off citing a study from a think tank on the right other than from Heritage, and other than from CAP on the Democratic side. It makes the case stronger,” said Tevi Troy, a former aide to President George W. Bush who now works at the Hudson Institute.


Heritage’s immigration study has attracted political campaign-level scrutiny, and for a number of reasons. For one, it was released just as the immigration debate was to begin in Congress -- that’s typical for Heritage, which often releases major studies and reports ahead of congressional debates and votes. The study has also one of the first major reports released since DeMint took over as president of Heritage.

The high-stakes nature of immigration reform is adding to the political urgency among immigration reform skeptics. Heritage played a role in derailing George W. Bush’s attempts at comprehensive immigration reform, but this time liberals and pro-immigration reform conservatives alike were prepared, as if running rapid response in the height of campaign season.

Rubio called the report “flawed” and “based on a single premise.” Former Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said: “It's a political document. It's not serious analysis.” Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted “here we go again” as he criticized the fact that the report didn’t account for the economic growth that immigrants bring into the country.

Then came the scrutiny over study co-author Jason Richwine’s Harvard University dissertation. While written before his time at Heritage, it raised scrutiny for Heritage given the overlapping themes of research. Richwine’s abstract reads, “The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations.”


“You have to carefully vet your people,” said Troy. “When you’re a think tank, all you have to go on is the research your scholars produce, and you’re on the hook for what your scholars have said, even beforehand.”

Heritage, for its part, tried to distance itself from the Richwine dissertation. Heritage communications vice president Mike Gonzalez wrote it “is not a work product of The Heritage Foundation. Its findings do not reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation or the conclusions of our study on the cost of amnesty to U.S. taxpayers, as race and ethnicity are not part of Heritage immigration policy recommendations.”

Troy, who has written at length about the “devaluing” of the think tank, says the continued politicization of these organizations is a troubling trend.

“There are think tanks that see more of their value to get involved in the political value,” he says. “To the extent to which people are picking up on that -- that certain think tanks have partisan coloring to their approach or they are trying to help partisan efforts -- that often leads to discounting the work of other think tanks."

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