Robert Brookings made a lot of money in St. Louis manufacturing and selling housewares, then devoted much of his fortune and energy to building up Washington University and other institutions in his home city. At the start of World War I he agreed to serve as co-chairman of the War Industries Board, where he became the link between hundreds of private companies and a federal government trying to organize emergency war production. The experience convinced him that federal policymakers needed better economic data and better informed civil servants.
So in 1916 Brookings organized the Institute for Government Research, the first private organization aimed at bringing a factual and scientific approach to policymaking and governance. Other donors to the effort included J. P. Morgan and John Rockefeller, and companies like Fulton Cutting and Cleveland Dodge. Brookings also established the Institute of Economics in 1922 and a graduate school in 1924.
In 1927 the three organizations merged, becoming the Brookings Institution, which is generally regarded as the first think tank. Brookings researchers later contributed to the Marshall Plan, establishment of the United Nations, creation of the Congressional Budget Office, and many other national efforts. Employees of the Brookings Institution often moved back and forth between government posts and their perches at the think tank.
Although normally associated with mainstream liberalism, the Brookings Institution has also contributed to causes associated with conservatism. These include welfare reform, school choice, tax reform, and regulatory rationalization. A University of Pennsylvania survey has named the Brookings Institution the world’s leading think tank.
- Hermann Hagedorn, Brookings: A Biography (Macmillan, 1936)