Explaining Research Activities of International Organizations

Europe of Knowledge |

Anke Reinhardt

International governmental organizations are not, at least not primarily, research organizations. There are exceptions: For example, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) were both created to conduct research. But the vast majority of international organizations have other functions: facilitating international cooperation, regulating international access to goods and services, assisting governments in financial crises, to name a few.

Nevertheless, some international organizations have established themselves as successful research institutions. The World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank (IBRD), the IMF, and the OECD are major contributors to scientific progress. And these four organizations are not alone: the number of articles published by researchers from international organizations has steadily increased over time.

Why do international organizations invest in research, and how does the level of investment vary across organizations?

In a paper presented at the ECPR Joint Session Workshop: “Governing with Evidence: Making Sense of Current Uses and Models of Evidence Based Policy” (2022), I argued that the research activities of international organizations can be explained by a number of institutional characteristics of international organizations. Some international organizations collect data, some operate in a rapidly changing environment that they want to understand better, and some seek scientific evidence to improve the policies through which the organization interacts with its member states. But that is not all: some international organizations operate in controversial policy areas and implement policies that invite criticism and opposition from member states, non-governmental organizations, the media, and the general public. It is these international organizations, which see themselves in the line of fire, that maintain the largest research departments, invest the most resources in research, and publish the largest number of articles in leading scientific journals.

I analyze the research output of 71 international organizations, the selection following the Measure of International Authority, MIA for short, dataset (Hooghe et al., 2017; Hooghe & Marks, 2015). I explain the variation in the number of articles authored by the staff of these organizations and published in scientific journals that are abstracted in the Clarivate’s Web of Science articles.


Reasons for international organizations to be research active

My empirical analyses suggest that international organizations differ in their research behavior based on their specific function and environment. International organizations are research active to very different degrees, with many organizations not engaging in research at all, some being somewhat research active, and a few fostering an intense research culture.

I am analyzing the period from 2003 to 2022. During this time, the number of articles published per year by the organizations in my sample nearly triples, from an average of 16 articles per year per organization to an average of about 42 articles per year per organization.

Most strikingly, the distribution of publications is extremely skewed. Six organizations, notably the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank (IBRD), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), each published more than 1,000 articles during this 20-year period. They act like research powerhouses.

Only ten other organizations have published more than 100 articles over a 20-year period, making them appear to be active in research. But 30 organizations have published only a handful of articles, and 21 organizations have published no articles at all.

Note that my sample includes only organizations that, at least in principle, have sufficient resources to invest in research. To conclude: Scientific research is a possible, but not a necessary activity of international organizations.

My data also show that organizations working on a specific policy problem – Hooghe and Marks call them task-specific organizations – are more likely to conduct research than general-purpose organizations formed by members who feel culturally or normatively bound to each other. This suggests that research has a function for specialized and technical tasks or for policy development, as is the case, for example, with the World Health Organization (WHO) or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The most interesting finding is that organizations that are at the center of public debate invest more in research than international organizations that operate less under media and public scrutiny. Research results appear to be impartial and truthful, which helps international organizations to exercise authority (Busch & Liese, 2016) and to legitimize policies.


Repercussions of non-research organizations investing in research?

My research highlights how institutions use research output to justify their policies. This strategy has some backlashes: The legitimacy of international organizations and the legitimizing effect of expert knowledge may have suffered in (some parts of) the public (Dellmuth & Tallberg, 2021), and evidence-based policy-making has received a mixed reputation as “policy-based evidence-making” (Straßheim & Kettunen, 2014).

International organizations are political organizations and pursue political goals – in their own interest, in the interest of their members, or in the interest of a handful of the most influential members. Even if some of the organizations have policies aimed at protecting the independence of inferences, the structural dependence of the international organization on its member states or on institutional self-protection can lead to a predetermined selection of research questions or to biased results and conclusions. Research by international organizations is thus a double-edged sword: international organizations use it to justify and improve their policies, and their policies, strategies, and ideology may influence the scientific results. So far, the nature of this research has not undermined the legitimacy gains that international organizations derive from their research activities. But this need not remain the case.


Anke Reinhardt is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Bielefeld (Germany). Anke works at the intersection of Science and Technology Studies and International Relations. Her research is empirically oriented and focuses on the question why non-academic organizations, especially international organizations, invest in research activities. In addition to her doctoral studies, Anke works as director of evaluation and monitoring at a research funding agency. In this role, she co-authored the paper “Understanding the use and usability of research evaluation studies” published in Research Evaluation and several policy studies.


This blog post is based on her paper that won the 2022 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar from the ECPR Standing Group ‘Knowledge Politics and Policies’. The award was celebrated during the 2023 ECPR General Conference. This was the sixth time this prize was awarded. Previous winners are Alexander MitterleJustyna Bandola-GillEmma SabzalievaOlivier Provini and Que Anh Dang.



Busch, P. O., & Liese, A. (2016). The authority of international public administrations (B. Busch, M. W., C. Knill, & S. Eckhard, Eds.). Springer.

Dellmuth, L. M., & Tallberg, J. (2021). Elite communication and the popular legitimacy of international organizations. British Journal of Political Science, 51(3), 1292–1313.

Hooghe, L., & Marks, G. (2015). Delegation and pooling in international organizations. The Review of International Organizations, 10(3), 305–328.

Hooghe, L., Marks, G., Lenz, T., Bezuijen, J., Ceka, B., & Derderyan, S. (2017). Measuring international authority: A Postfunctionalist theory of governance: Vol. III.

Straßheim, H., & Kettunen, P. (2014). When does evidence-based policy turn into policy-based evidence? Configurations, contexts and mechanisms. Evidence & Policy. A Journal of Research, Debate And, 10(2), 259–277.