Summer 1996 Journal: Think Tanks

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Aug. 2, 1996
John O. Harney, Editor
(617) 357-9620

Regional Journal Sees Growing Role for New England Think Tanks as Policy Spotlight Shifts from Washington to States

BOSTON — New England’s public policy “think tanks” will rise in stature as government responsibilities devolve from Washington, D.C., to state capitals, according to a series of articles to be published next week in Connection: New England’s Journal of Higher Education and Economic Development.

A preliminary study by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts-Boston suggests that 150 or more of these policy research institutes are at work in the six states, crunching numbers, conducting surveys, publishing studies and holding conferences in an effort to influence public policy, Connection reports.

Some of the New England institutes focus sharply on issues such as health care, education or environmental protection. Others address broad themes of governing, economic security and social welfare.

“Just as federal policymaking bore the imprint of the Brookings Institution in the 1960s and the Heritage Foundation in the 1980s, newly energized state and local policymaking in the late 1990s may well reflect the influence of New England think tanks such as the A. Alfred Taubman centers at Brown and Harvard universities or the Edmund S. Muskie Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Southern Maine,” writes Connection Editor John O. Harney.

Connection is NEBHE’s quarterly journal — and America’s only regional journal on higher education and economic development.

“Cover Stories” in the new Summer 1996 issue examine the changing role of New England’s public policy think tanks, the widespread use and misuse of survey research in policy formulation and the potential for regional cooperation among policy institutes. The “Cover Stories” are accompanied by a partial listing of the region’s policy centers and institutes arranged by primary area of interest.

The new issue also features an exclusive commentary by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and an index of Connection articles by author since 1986.

A summary of Summer 1996 Connection articles follows:

Campus-Based Policy Institutes Poised to Reinvent New England • Robert L. Woodbury, director of the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, contends that New England’s campus-based public policy institutes offer a “mix of political realism and scholarly distance” that will make them key players on issues ranging from health care to international trade. Woodbury calls on New England’s think tanks to work together to share “best practices” and craft regional solutions to policy problems. “New England’s campus-based policy institutes can make a difference collectively, as well as individually,” writes Woodbury. “From Vermont to Rhode Island, these think tanks and their affiliated faculty could share information and pool expertise on issues of trade policy, revenue development.”

Collaboration in Policy Research: Barriers and Opportunities • Though policy problems cross state lines, an entrenched system of rewards and incentives has discouraged regional cooperation among think tanks, observes Steve Ballard, director of the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine. “Skeptical faculty want proof that a new collaborative paradigm for policy centers would offer advantages,” writes Ballard. “Would scarce research dollars be dissipated across several universities? Would typical institute research, perhaps authored by multiple faculty members or published in some format other than a refereed journal, count toward tenure? Too often, these questions alone are enough to inhibit cooperation among university-based policy experts.

Survey Research: Determining the Facts Moves Front and Center • Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, observes that the widespread use and misuse of survey research in public policy formulation has created the need for a new type of think tank dedicated to careful monitoring of poll data and other relevant statistics. “The ever-expanding political uses of polling have been accompanied by a range of abuses where the public’s opinions are distorted,” writes Ladd.

Information Drives Policy in Rhode Island • Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions is instrumental in the “Providence Plan,” a major initiative to revitalize Rhode Island’s capital city. Thomas J. Anton, the center’s founding director, and Eleanor M. McMahon, distinguished professor at the center and chair of the New England Board of Higher Education, explain how the center’s role in such initiatives, along with its widely cited public opinion research, reflect a critical premise: good policy cannot be built on bad information.

Heard in the Statehouses? • Maine state Sen. John J. O’Dea urges policy institutes to carry their messages into the political trenches. “It is not enough merely to pontificate on the effects of a failed state initiative or to point out opportunities to a scholarly audience,” writes O’Dea. “Public policy institutes should engage themselves in the policy debate and bring their expertise to bear on the problems facing the state and the region.” O’Dea notes that a strengthened partnership between legislators and outside policy experts is particularly crucial if the northern New England states are to maintain the tradition of part-time citizen legislatures in an era of increasingly complex issues.

New England’s Intercity Connections • Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino calls for increased cooperation among New England mayors in areas from energy purchasing to job creation. “The mayors could encourage the formation of a New England ‘Development Bank’ with special authority to issue low-cost debt for job-creating ventures or perhaps a concerted effort to increase funding for education or a common push for uniform tax incentives,” writes Menino. The mayor notes that
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Journal Examines Think Tanks – 4

“’empowerment zone’ legislation could be advanced in all six states to provide a
consistent set of incentives for businesses to locate in inner-city areas from Boston to Bridgeport — and help put an end to the kind of border raiding that doesn’t serve any of us well.”

Higher Education Financing: The Broken Partnership • How will employers attract college-educated workers in the 21st century? One way is to help the graduates pay off their student loan debt, writes Diane L. Saunders, vice president of communications and public affairs at Nellie Mae, the Braintree, Mass.-based national provider of education loan funds. If student loan repayment assistance were offered as part of a so-called “flexible benefit” plan, according to Saunders, “valuable young employees might not be so quick to look elsewhere after gaining experience at a company.” Congress could help, Saunders notes, by extending favorable tax treatment to employer-provided loan repayment assistance plans.

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