Rethinking reliance on think tanks

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On a host of issues from global warming to nuclear safety, political decision makers and a vast network of lobby groups and so-called think tanks increasingly ignore scientific and technical analysis in favor of unverified assertions. Misinformation and propaganda, masquerading as science and fueled by heavy spending, are injected not only into media accounts and the blogosphere but into debates in the chambers of the U.S. Congress.
 
Despite the name of the organization Sen. DeMint will lead, this approach is not part of our nation’s heritage. Until fairly recently, policymakers treated non-partisan expertise with deference -- whether it came from respected think tanks such as the Brookings Institution or RAND or from official government bodies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Congressional Budget Office, the late and lamented Office of Technology Assessment or a host of other respected sources.
 
A reverence for rigorous and independent analysis is part of American history. Our nation’s founders were committed to unleashing the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. And we have prospered and endured as a direct result of this partnership between science and democracy and the role of trusted expert advice informing government decisions.
 
We still have a critical need for independent analysis. America’s challenges have not diminished, partisanship has not diminished, and the need for bringing forth credible expertise on key public policy issues has only grown. That is the role of a true think tank.
 
But in recent years -- and in too many cases -- trusted sources have been wrestled to the sidelines. Instead, knee-jerk partisan responses to policymaking have come to the fore. If the opposition proposes legislation, analyze the costs. If a fellow ideologue proposes legislation, analyze the benefits. No wonder that the Heritage Foundation had to awkwardly explain why its 1989 proposal for an individual health insurance mandate no longer made sense once it became part of Democrats’ health care plan.
 
Similarly, analyses of the Keystone XL pipeline project estimate it may create as many as 250,000 or as few as 5,000 jobs. Really? It would seem that range could be narrowed substantially with some clarity about what type of jobs are considered and over what period.
 
Speaking of jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) falls in and out of favor with policymakers based on the unemployment numbers it releases. Jon Stewart caught Fox News Channel hailing BLS’s work as solid economic analysis when the economy was shedding jobs, but entertaining conspiracy theories about BLS when it released more positive reports.

Even the Congressional Research Service, which is considered as non-partisan as it gets in Washington, was forced – under Congressional pressure – to shelve a report that questioned the economic benefits of cutting taxes.
 
And the Obama Administration, for the first time in the nation’s history, rejected expert advice from the Food and Drug Administration and refused to make the contraceptive Plan B available over the counter, despite the fact that scientists found restrictions on its sale unjustifiable on public health grounds.
 
So let’s call a think tank a think tank. Independent advice should be just that.
 
Of course we will, and should, have partisan debates about public policy. But those debates should be grounded in scientific evidence and careful non-partisan analysis.
 
Today’s ideological posturing undercuts incentives to find solutions to pressing problems we face and makes it difficult for political leaders to agree on even basic facts, not to mention acting with foresight and purpose.
 
We need many more politicians and opinion leaders from across the ideological and political spectrum to express their trust in, and reliance upon facts, no matter what divergent political viewpoints they may hold. We need them to reject and denounce misinformation in favor of a baseline of understanding about the critical issues we face that is informed by the best-available evidence.
 
The role of expert advice in public policy cannot be ignored or pushed to the side as a partisan issue. That isn’t our history. It isn’t the basis of our democracy.  And it surely isn’t a solid foundation for the future.
 
Rosenberg is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is dedicated to restoring the essential role of science, evidence-based knowledge, and constructive debate in the U.S. policymaking process.