The following (slightly revised) was a letter to the Public Editor of the New York Times, written on 9/15/2014.
I was upset at the Times's coverage of foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks such as Brookings. I was reminded of this by the recent edition of The Economist, which points out how attacking these institutions for accepting contributions could make it seem more acceptable when authoritarian regimes elsewhere try to block contributions to NGOs that might threaten them (p. 20, Sept 13-19 edition).
As one letter pointed out, most of these think tanks do not hide the sources of their funds. It would be bad if they did that, but they don't. Beyond this, I do not see what is the least bit wrong with accepting foreign contributions.
1. U.S. policy has major effects on foreigners. Why should they not be able to try to make sure that we at least know about such effects? We ought to consider them more than we do. If the foreign contributions do succeed in bringing different points of view to attention of U.S. citizens and government, just what is so bad about that? Are we supposed to set policy without considering such effects? As a citizen and voter, I certainly do not think this way, and I am not in a tiny minority on this point.
2. It would be at least a little hypocritical for the U.S. to get up on a high horse about government funding of private institutions in other countries, including NGOs. The U.S. government has done this for decades, and, I believe, still does it. (And I don't see anything wrong with what we do either.)
3. The Times articles hinted that the conclusions of research organizations are influenced by their funding. I have seen several denials of this, and I believe that the culture of places like Brookings is against such influence. But, as a professor in a major research university with much the same culture, I can see that such influence happens, in subtle ways. And it is not the least bit limited to foreign sources. (I have received grants from Israel, and I do not feel any pressure at all to conform to policies of the Israeli government, although perhaps the probability that I would participate in an academic boycott of Israel has gone from .01 to .001.) The U.S. government itself has distorted research in major ways. Right now it is engaged in a massive campaign to boost biological research at the expense of traditional psychology, which I think is a mistake. In my own field, partly as a result of this shift, most research is now supported by the Templeton Foundation, which has as its ultimate purpose the rapprochement of religion and science. The topics it supports are limited to those that can be shoe-horned into this framework, so I and some of my colleagues have learned to speak a certain way, in order to get money from them. (Of course, they too have been flexible in choosing topics that would not offend atheists too much, lest they offend 90% of the research audience they are trying to reach.) I could go on with story after story about how research has been distorted by influences of this sort, including large amounts of money from corporations such as Exxon. But is it even distortion? or is this the way science is supposed to work, with inputs from consumers as well as producers? In sum, I don't see why foreign influences are being singled out as distortions of research, when they are in essence a drop in the bucket.
4. Many of the "foreign interests" mentioned struck me as extremely odd. Apparently Norway gives money to Brookings, and this is supposed to be in support of Norway's government policies. I do not know which policies are at issue here, but Norway is a tiny country with probably the most enlightened policies in the world concerning the alleviation of world poverty and protection of the environment. Yes, they have oil, but they know it is running out. I find it difficult to believe that the money they give to Brookings is in hopes that Brookings will release a report favoring off-shore drilling off the Norwegian coast. The drilling is a done deal. More likely, Norway contributes to Brookings in hopes that it will help solve some environmental problem.