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Major research groups given low marks on transparency

WASHINGTON — The conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, based in California, and the liberal Center for American Progress, based in Washington, are polar opposites in terms of political leanings. But according to a first-of-its-kind survey of the world’s most prominent research organizations, the institutions share an important trait: a relatively poor record of disclosing the sources of their financing.

The two organizations, along with other major players in Washington such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Hudson Institute, each earned just one star out of a possible five in the survey, set to be made public on Wednesday, an advance copy of which was provided to The New York Times.

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The survey, conducted by a small nonprofit group called Transparify, has already caused major ripples in the think tank world, even before its official release.

Major research organizations around the world — including at least half a dozen in the United States like the Washington-based Stimson Center, which focuses on foreign policy, and the Center for Global Development, which combats poverty worldwide — have taken steps in recent months to avoid a poor ranking by disclosing more information on their websites.

“The Transparify project has been useful in prompting some reflection about how Stimson can best provide this information in a way that honors consumers of Stimson’s analysis and the donors who support our work,” Cheryl L. Ramp, the chief operating officer at the center, said after the 25-year-old group revealed, for the first time, a full list of its institutional and foundation donors.

The question about the disclosure of donors is not simply an academic one.

These institutions often play a major role in shaping public policy, and their reports are widely distributed among lawmakers and are often cited by corporate lobbyists as they push legislation that could benefit their bottom lines.

What is often unknown is what role different industries — or even their lobbyists — play in delivering money to the research groups that generate these reports.

For example, the American Enterprise Institute, another Washington-based group that received a relatively low rating from Transparify based on its policy not to disclose its donors, pushed a report last year detailing the harm that a law revamping financial regulations, known as the Dodd-Frank Act, has had on community banks — without saying whether banks or a trade association that represents them helped finance the organization.

A spokeswoman for the group said donations to it went to its general fund, so studies like the one on the Dodd-Frank law are not written at the request of individual donors.

The research organizations, which in almost all cases are set up as nonprofit groups, are not required under federal law to publicly disclose their donors.

Several of the largest Washington-based research groups — including the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the Urban Institute — received four stars.

But many of the other major groups in the United States received relatively low scores, like the Hoover Institution, based on the campus of Stanford University, which did not respond to a request for comment on its policy to keep its donors’ names private, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.

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