"Think tank" may be one of the mainstream's most evolving--as well as overused and misused--terms of 2012 (and 2011, and 2010 for that matter). It's always entertaining to hear the public's differing opinions on think tanks simply because most people don't have much access to how a think tank works or what transpires within these research communities.
Public policy think tanks are obviously supported by tax payers, so last week's announcement of conservative think tank Heritage Foundation appointing Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has many observers wondering if senior politicians heading these organizations is a trend that will continue: in other words, the traditional Ph.D. requirement to flourish in the think tank world may be on the decline. (I should note that the progressive Center for American Progress also is run by a policy director, Neera Tanden.)
DeMint's annual salary will skyrocket from $174,000 (Senate) to $1,098,612 (Heritage Foundation). It's precisely this kind of monetary issue that may bring more accountability to think tanks that some believe already receive too much taxpayer subsidy in order to exert a certain political influence or agenda. But think tanks are accustomed to scrutiny by their self-imposed networks of policy experts to world leaders, and so far have largely avoided broad public investigations (essential for conducting research that is as unbiased as possible or even non-partisan).
Although Ph.D.'s will probably always have a big presence in any reputable think tank, such traditional backgrounds may increasingly be meshed with researchers who have less traditional frameworks, and this should have a robust impact on the quality of research we can expect in the future.
Now whether or not you think senior politicians should be running policy think tanks is another issue entirely...