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Think Tank Science and Engineering: Construction of New High-end Think Tank Starts from Specialization, Scientifization to Disciplinization—Interview with Professor PAN Jiaofeng, November 15, 2022 Adjust font size:

The construction of new high-end think tanks with Chinese characteristics has been in the “fast lane” since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and is entering a new stage of high-quality development. What is the development process of think tank methodology with Chinese characteristics? How should think tank construction advance from specialization to scientifization and then to disciplinization and finally establish a discipline system? To answer these questions, the Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences (BCAS) interviewed Professor PAN Jiaofeng, President of the Institutes of Science and Development, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASISD).

The construction of new high-end think tanks in China is now experiencing high-quality development, what are the keys to the high- quality think tank development?

PAN Jiaofeng: Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the construction of new think tanks with Chinese characteristics has experienced rapid development. The role and value of think tanks have been generally recognized and the activity and influence of think tanks have become increasingly apparent. Think tank construction is currently entering a new stage of high-quality development characterized by the transition from quantitative expansion to connotation improvement.

According to my observation and analysis in the long-term practice involving in the construction of high-end think tanks, there are six key factors for the high-quality development of think tanks: (1) effective institutional arrangement; (2) smooth supply and demand matching mechanism; (3) specialized think tank institutions and talents; (4) clear and actionable standards and specifications; (5) scientific methodology; and (6) extensive international exchanges.

(1) From the perspective of effective institutional arrangements, the central government of China has taken the construction of high-end think tanks as an institutional arrangement for the modernization of national governance system and governance capacity. With the in-depth advancement of pilot construction of high-end think tanks, some exploratory practice and experience have been integrated into institutional building. At present, the overall framework of institutions can meet the needs of high-quality development of think tanks.

(2) From the perspective of smooth supply and demand matching mechanism, the agencies involved in pilot construction of high-end think tanks have established regularly direct connection mechanisms with relevant central and state decision-making departments. Such connection mechanisms cover talent flow, direct assignment of tasks, exchanges during research process, sharing of information, and direct reporting of research results. A mechanism for connecting decision-making demand with consultation research and countermeasure research has been initially established. Other think tanks have also achieved positive results in establishing the mechanisms for connecting with the clients of decision-‌making services. The mismatch issue between supply and demand has been gradually solved based on these mechanisms. That is, the specificity of services provided for decision makers has been increased to improve the quality of think tank achievements.

(3) From the perspective of specialized think tank institutions and talents, China has established a think tank system led by national high-end think tanks and composed of specialized think tanks with multiple main bodies, diverse types, distinct levels, and different characteristics. According to the statistics, the number of specialized think tanks in China is at the top of the world, and full-time researchers and specialized research teams keep growing. There are even more research institutions, universities and colleges, social organizations, and professional researchers that are involved in think tank research. The foundation made of organizations and talents for the high-quality development of think tank has become increasingly solid.

(4) From the perspective of clear and actionable standards and specifications, value-orientation and standards are lacking for topic selection, process management, result assessment, and talent evaluation of think tank research. Taking think tank research results as an example, we need to make clear the nature, type, and characteristics of the products provided by think tanks before setting the criteria for evaluating different types of results. The consultation products for decision makers provided by think tanks can be classified into four categories: data- and knowledge-based products; information-, evidence-, or survey-based products; idea- and opinion-based products; and solution-based products. At present, the profound idea- and opinion-based products, as well as the systematic solutions to major decision-making issues, are insufficient. The true value of think tank should be to innovate idea and guide practice, and the golden standard for testing think tank products should be the ability to provide systematic solutions to think tank problems.

(5) From the perspective of scientific methodology, think tanks study the complex problems involving multiple disciplines and fields to provide policy suggestions or solutions. The complexity of research objects and the practicality of research results suggest that think tank methodology is of great importance. Many well-known think tanks in the world have attached great importance to innovating research methods for specific problems to improve the scientificity of research and have developed a variety of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Nevertheless, these methods show clear instrumental characteristics while lack systematic perspective and methodological innovation, which is mainly due to the lack of understanding of the laws of think tank research and the absence of a think tank theoretical system. Advancing from specialization to scientifization needs the development of think tank methodology with universal applicability and the innovation of tools for solving problems in specific fields, which is essential to improve quality of think tank research. This is a major urgent issue faced by many think tanks, and addressing this issue will become a major theoretical contribution to the construction of new high-end think tanks in China.

(6) From the perspective of extensive international exchanges, the problems considered and solutions proposed by think tanks should be valuable and meaningful for global development. A global vision is necessary for gathering global wisdom. Internationalization is an inherent feature of think tanks, and every think tank should have extensive international exchanges. The world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century. Think tanks are in urgent need to plays a role as a bridge, a link, or a network in foreseeing the trend of global development, solving the major challenges faced by the entire humanity, and building a community with a shared future for mankind. We should strengthen international exchange and cooperation in think tank research so as to jointly put forward solutions that benefit the development of the world, the prosperity of people, and the progress of civilization.

In the process of think tank construction, how do you incorporate problem orientation, evidence orientation, and science orientation into think tank research?

PAN Jiaofeng: Think tank research starts with problem analysis. Problem orientation means focusing on the research problems, clarifying the real needs of decision-making, studying the real problems, and deeply understanding the problems and research objects. First, we need to have a clear understanding for the category of research problem. That is, we should make it clear that the problem studied by think tank is associated with strategy, measures, management, or policy. The final solutions or suggestions for different problems have specific emphasis and vary greatly. Second, we should understand the disciplines and fields involving the research problem. By defining the problem domain, we can extract the key elements and decompose the problem into a set of interconnected sub-problems in single disciplines or fields that can be handled by researchers with the existing knowledge. Third, through problem decomposition, we can find experts in related fields, available research results, and research conclusions with consensus, so as to make full use of the existing research achievements and knowledge. Fourth, main body should be identified. Only after identifying main body can we comprehensively consider the interests of different main body during research, apply game theory, perform simulation, and further put forward suggestions that can take into account and balance the interests of all participating body.

Evidence orientation demonstrates the evidence-based process and reflects the objectivity and independence of think tank research. Think tanks cannot completely quantify the problem and sometimes can only provide a qualitative judgment, which requires evidence or objective facts that can support the judgment. Meanwhile, quantitative data and evidence enhance the scientificity, reliability, and feasibility of research conclusions. This is helpful to gain the understanding and recognition of decision makers, benefited bodies, and the public. Through evidence-orientation, objectivity can be truly imported into the research process.

Science orientation emphasizes that scientific attitude, method, and practice should be adopted throughout think tank research. Once the policy suggestions proposed by think tanks are adopted by decision makers, they will produce extensive and profound social impact. Therefore, the suggestions should be developed with great caution and a rigorous, scientific, and responsible attitude in the research process. Suitable methods should be adopted for addressing different problems. We should make full use of the existing knowledge and experience to perform evidence-based research and verification and incorporate problem-orientation, evidence-orientation, and science-orientation into the whole process of think tank research, thus improving the quality of research.

You have successively proposed the Data-Information-Intelligence-Solution (DIIS), Double Helix Methodology composed of DIIS and Mechanism-Impact-Policy-Solution (MIPS), and “four layers.” What are the practical exploration, logical evolution, and theoretical iteration during the evolution of the methodology?

PAN Jiaofeng: In 2007, the Chinese Academy of Sciences organized a strategic research project on China’s Roadmap for Science and Technology Development Towards 2050. During the research process, we attached great importance to method selection, overall organization, and implementation. We employed the roadmap method to connect the demands, goals, tasks, key scientific and technological problems, implementation pathways, and supporting measures. After two years of research, a set of influential strategic reports Innovation 2050: Science and Technology and the Future of China was presented. The reports fully demonstrated the systematicness, scientificity, strategicness, and foresight of the research. The reports have influenced subsequent strategic studies. For example, the Vision 2020: The Emerging Trends in Science & Technology and Strategic Option of China published in 2013 also adopted such idea and method.

Since 2016, we have participated in the pilot construction of national high-end think tanks. In this process, we have encountered a number of comprehensive complex problems involving all aspects of the economy and society. On the basis of the existing research on science and technology development strategies, we summarized the experience in the new research practice and abstracted the essential and standard processes in the research on think tank problems, thereby proposing the DIIS methodology based on problem-orientation, evidence-orientation, and science-orientation. Instead of simply relying on data, the DIIS, under the guidance of the three orientations, combines data, information, intelligence, and solution to establish the standards of research and integrate the systematic and evidence-based thinking into all the processes of think tank research. Therefore, we call the DIIS a process fusion method. It has been adopted in practice and demonstrated solid performance in improving the quality of think tank research.

On this basis, we further realized that the logic and connotation of think tank research involve mechanism, impact, and policy.

Any think tank problem is complex and comprehensive from the research object, which involves different disciplines and fields and requires the study of the law of their interactions, a process called mechanism analysis.

On the basis of the mechanism analysis of think tank problem, we should perform impact analysis to reveal the impacts of the problem on the economy, society, science and technology, culture, and environment. Objectively understanding the extent and scope of the impacts is helpful to determine the decision-making value and importance of the problem.

This is followed by policy analysis. What are relevant policies? What are the impacts of these policies? Are these effects positive or negative? What new policies (solutions) are needed to address these problems? What will be the impacts of the new policies?

Think tank research involves mechanism, impact, and policy, which need analysis, iteration, and convergence, and this is called the MIPS logical hierarchy method. In the study of a think tank problem, DIIS process fusion method and MIPS logical hierarchy method are intertwined and iterative with each other.

We put forward the ten key issues regarding the use of think tank Double Helix Methodology. The ten key issues can also be regarded as ten research directions for the scientifization of think tank. To address the issues, we need to use some specific tools and methods, which is the fourth layer or the specific method and tool layer. The think tank Double Helix Methodology is formed under problem orientation, evidence orientation, and science orientation, which is composed of an external cycle of decomposition–fusion– restoration and an internal cycle of interacting DIIS and MIPS. Considering the think tank Double Helix Methodology, we proposed the ten key issues: decomposition of think tank problem, scenario analysis driven by think tank problem, uncertainty analysis of think tank problem research, policy simulation analysis of think tank problem research, circulative iteration of think tank research, expert organization and management of think tank research, coupling relationship between DIIS and MIPS, combination of objective analysis and subjective judgment, human–machine combination think tank research support system, and think tank product quality management. The final part is the sets of methods and tools for addressing these issues.

To put it simple, the think tank Double Helix Methodology starts with the study of a problem and ends with solutions. It consists of four parts: the external cycle, the internal cycle, the ten key issues, and the methods and tools, being an exploration of think tank research paradigm. Such a complete methodology makes it possible to integrate scientificity into the orientation, philosophy, process, and logic of think tank research.

How can the think tank methodology achieve the crossing of social and natural sciences, integration of theory and practice, consultation as the basis, and provision of advice and suggestions? How can we establish Chinese method and Chinese school of thought?

PAN Jiaofeng: The fundamental purpose of science and technology development is to improve the interaction and adaptability of humans with the nature and to provide new means, new tools, new spaces, and new conditions for the development of the human society. In today’s world, science and technology interact and integrate with the society, forming the trend of the socialization of science and technology and the scientifization/technologization of the society. On the one hand, the development of science and technology provides the tools and opportunities for innovation and creation, making everyone a central node of innovation. Garage laboratory, maker space, and personalized manufacturing represent the deep socialization of science and technology. On the other hand, the society is highly technologized. The development of network, digital, and intelligent technologies has made the operation, governance, and development of the society greatly dependent on science and technology, creating a digital society and digital future on top of the real world. Accordingly, the objects of think tank research constitute an extremely complex system in which economic, social, and scientific and technological issues are interrelated, interconnected, and integrated.

Facing such complex research objects, think tank research is characterized by deep integration of natural and social sciences. Therefore, think tank research should be regarded as a science adopting interdisciplinary and systematic ideas and methods, which requires the integration of natural and social sciences. We should identify the natural and social science fields involved in the research problem and comprehensively consider the related problems to carry out integrated research for understanding the intrinsic regularity. We should attach importance to the crossing and fusion of natural and social sciences, and the connection of theory and practice, so as to provide solutions and policy suggestions to the problems for decision making.

Meanwhile, think tank research should pay special attention to the social phenomena associated with the issues in reality to achieve the integration of theory and practice in research. Finally, it is essential to restore the research problem to the issues concerned by policy makers and provide solutions for such issues.

The construction of new think tanks with Chinese characteristics does not have a long history and is developing from specialization to scientifization. An important sign of scientifization is the innovation of methodology. As China is at a new stage of development, think tank research is faced with many new requirements. To form Chinese solutions, we need to develop unique think tank methodology in the exploration and practice of addressing Chinese problems. Practice spawns demand, and demand drives think tank methodology innovation, which form Chinese method and school of think tank research.

Discipline construction requires the support of theoretical system and methodology. Think tank construction has advanced from specialization, scientifization to disciplinization and formed a discipline system. How to understand the profound connotation of this discipline system?

PAN Jiaofeng: Think tank has attracted widespread attention and played a role in the society since the construction of specialized think tanks. With the innovation of methodology to address think tank problems, think tanks have developed from specialization to scientifization and are advancing towards disciplinization. One of the most distinctive features of disciplinization is the formation of a new discipline system, which is called think tank science and engineering.

The establishment of a new discipline in a specific research field is based on six factors: relatively mature research paradigm, theoretical method, academic system, scientific community, journal carrier, and talent training. The topics studied by think tanks are complex and comprehensive strategic, tactic, policy, management, and governance problems that involve multiple disciplines and fields. Therefore, we summarized the six characteristics—interdisciplinarity, interconnectedness, innovation, uncertainty, policy practicability, and social impact—of think tank research problems. These six characteristics are typical crossing and convergence problems. Addressing such problems with the ideas and methods used for solving general disciplinary and academic problems can provide only a glimpse but not the whole picture or only propose isolated and scattered suggestions based on the knowledge of a single discipline. How can we carry out research from a comprehensive point of view? Some researchers have carried out investigations, such as Professor Qian Xuesen’s meta-synthesis system approach and Professor Hua Luogeng’s optimization method and overall planning method, which are explorations and creations of related methods. This is also our original intention to develop the Double Helix Methodology of think tank research.

A frequently asked question is the disciplinary basis of think tank. Think tank researchers have different discipline backgrounds which are all needed by think tank research. However, these disciplines cannot be regarded as think tank disciplines. In view of the characteristics of think tank research problems, we combine the research achievements of scholars worldwide including the think tank experts Qian Xuesen and Hua Luogeng with our own exploration and innovation and suggested that the discipline can be called think tank science and engineering, which includes five domains.

(1) The basic domain of think tank science and engineering refers to the construction of discipline concept, connotation, paradigm, theory, and methodology. For example, Qian Xuesen’s meta-synthesis system approach, Hua Luogeng’s optimization method and overall planning method, and the Double Helix Methodology we have been exploring and developing, are research achievements accumulated in this domain. In terms of the connotation of think tank research, think tank science and engineering actually considers think tank as a research field rather than just a research organization. The think tank Double Helix Methodology is actually paradigmatic. It addresses not a single issue but the general principles and rules that should be followed in think tank research. In this sense, it provides a methodology for the discipline of think tank science and engineering.

(2) The law domain of think tank science and engineering constitutes a branch of this discipline, which mainly refers to the key science, technology, and engineering issues of think tank. This is exemplified by the ten key issues—problem decomposition, scenario analysis, uncertainty analysis, policy simulation analysis, evidence-based circulative iteration, DIIS and MIPS coupling, combination of objective analysis and subjective judgment, expert organization and management, human–machine combination system, and product quality management—raised from the think tank Double Helix Methodology. In addition, this domain includes crossing studies and data-driven policy studies. The research on these issues contributes to the formation of some research branches and directions of think tank science and engineering and provides universal knowledge of laws or knowledge sources for methodological innovation.

Think tank engineering refers to the process of organized production of think tank products through think tank research and practice, which can be classified into large-, medium-, and small-scale think tank engineering projects. The large-scale think tank research projects we have worked on include the Strategic Research on Innovation 2050: Roadmap of Science and Technology, Strategic Research on Vision 2020: The Emerging Trends in Science & Technology and Strategic Option of China, Evaluation of Water Conservancy Projects, Research on Key Issues and Planning of Strategic and Emerging Industries during the 14th Five-Year Plan Period, Strategic Research on the Ten-Year Action Plan for Basic Research, Strategic Research on Science and Technology to Support the Western Ecological Barrier, Strategic Research on Regional Innovation System, and Strategic Research on High-quality Development of Inner Mongolia.

(3) The governance domain of think tank science and engineering also constitutes a branch of this discipline. It mainly refers to major economic, social, and scientific and technological governance issues and relevant fields such as development strategy, development planning, innovation as a driving force, global governance, national governance, social governance, and prediction and foresight. Because the think tank research involves multiple areas, multiple sub-problems converge to form a major problem domain. The gradual solving of the key sub-problems in the major problem domain can directly meet the needs of policy makers and form the branch research fields and directions of think tank science and engineering.

(4) The method and platform innovation domain of think tank science and engineering refers to the integration and innovation of discipline methods, models, technology platforms, and data resources. The examples include various qualitative methods, quantitative methods, mixed research methods, databases, expert databases, information databases, and macro-decision support systems developed by think tanks around the world.

(5) The knowledge dissemination domain of think tank science and engineering mainly includes the formation of the academic community, journal carrier, and institutionalized talent training system. CASISD has conducted a series of pioneering works in this area. In terms of talent training system construction, CASISD was granted with the project of Talent Training for High-end Science and Technology Think Tanks supported by the Ministry of Education in 2022 and became the first institution for fostering postgraduates in think tank theory and methodology in China. The University of Chinese Academy of Sciences has established the special direction of Think Tank Theory and Methodology and the corresponding curriculum under the first-level discipline of public management. This pioneered the construction of think tank discipline in China and promoted think tank research from scientifization to disciplinization.

Looking backward, CASISD has taken a new road of high-end think tank construction from specialization to scientifization and then to disciplinization. Looking forward, we should develop the theoretical and ideological methods of think tank science and engineering, which include the theory and method innovation for ten key issues such as scenario analysis, uncertainty analysis, iteration, and combination of subjective analysis and objective judgement. Moreover, we should develop the tools and research methods that reflect think tank engineering and adapt to different application scenarios and research fields. Examples include the method of roadmap construction of science and technology development for the research on the strategic planning of science and technology, the method of science and technology prospect and prediction for the research on major scientific issues worldwide, the method of matrix structure and event analysis for the organization of research on major issues worldwide, the comprehensive evaluation methods of science and technology innovation for research on the development of regions, manufacturing industries, and high-tech industrial development zones, and the evaluation method of think tank journal group and report group for research on the journals and reports of think tanks. These mature research tools and methods have endowed CASISD with unique competitive advantages, constituted a complete set of knowledge system integrating social and natural sciences, theory and practice, and knowledge and action and advancing with the times. This is not only the basis of think tank research but also the key content of research and teaching of think tank science and engineering.

As for the current development of think tank, we should promote the establishment of the discipline of think tank science and engineering. The discipline formation and development of think tank science and engineering will provide theoretical and methodological support for think tank construction and also a knowledge system for the training of think tank talents. This will allow think tank to serve the modernization of national governance system and governance capacity, and make think tank an indispensable force to serve the progress of human civilization.


PAN Jiaofeng, Professor, Doctorial Supervisor, President of the Institutes of Science and Development, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASISD)

This article is contributed by Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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