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The Globe and Mail

Small Ottawa think tank gets big global honour

A little Ottawa think tank has been rated the best little brain trust in the world.

The North-South Institute, a small research organization on development issues, has topped the annual global rankings for small-budget think tanks in the Global Go-To Think Tanks Report, an influential barometer of research heft.

"I was dumbfounded," North-South Institute president Joe Ingram told The Globe. "And delighted."

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Founded in 1976, the North-South Institute appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance now, with its researchers' ideas on things like a financial-transactions tax and social responsibility in the mining sector attracting international attention.

The Global Go-To rankings are considered an indicator of credibility and influence in the world of think tanks, based on rankings on a series of criteria by thousands of academics, public-policy experts, peers, and journalists.

It slices the ratings into several categories: the giant and respected Washington-based Brookings Institutions topped the overall rankings, but the North-South Institute won in the category of institutions with annual budgets of less than $5-million.

This year's ratings were unveiled in Washington Wednesday morning, and will be detailed at an event at the United Nations in New York in the afternoon.

Another Canadian organization, the Fraser Institute, topped the rankings for a region that includes Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean – but not the U.S. – a category dominated by Canadian institutes, which held eight of the top 10 spots.

The North-South Institute's annual budget, at about $3.5-million, is only a fraction of the big global institutions like Brookings, but its work has had influence on international policy debates.

The North-South Institute's Rodney Schmidt has over the past year attracted international attention for his work on an updated version of the Tobin Tax, designed to tax financial transactions like currency trades to fund development in poorer nations.

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But the Institute's other research, on areas like corporate social responsibility in mining – first with first nations in Canada and then in four Latin American countries – has also attracted international attention. It received an invitation from the African Union to advise them on creating a continental charter for mining, Mr. Ingram said.

It's also important for the organization's reputation at a time when it is trying to increase the amount of private funding it gets so it relies less on funding from federal government organizations like the Canadian International Development Agency. "It think it will have an impact," Mr. Ingram said in a telephone interview from New York.

He said it's especially important for a Canadian organization, because Canada doesn't have the long, deep history of think tanks seen in the United States or some other countries. The North-South Institute has worked to narrow its focus to three or four areas of economic and social policy where it can the most cutting-edge work, he said.

The founder of the ratings, James McGann, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's think tanks and civil societies program, said he started the ranking system to create an objective system after being contacted often by policy-makers and journalists for advice on which think tanks did good work.

But Mr. McGann said they also serve another purpose: In a globalizing world, they help researchers and policy makers in one region connect with credible organizations they might not know.

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