President's Message from Pew Prospectus 2006

Benjamin Franklin, 17 years old, scruffy and fresh off the boat, walks up a dusty Market Street in colonial Philadelphia with three bread rolls, looking for work in his chosen trade—an autobiographical scene that is now an indelible part of Americana.

Here is the counterpart, decades later: An older Franklin, citizen of a young nation, walks up the same street, which is now paved and illuminated at night. He may be heading to the public library or local university or hospital. He passes a fire station, a scientific society, an insurance company. He adjusts his bifocals to read the latest news on a broadsheet.

In the span of a lifetime, Franklin witnessed incredible advances in the quality of life, self-government and individual political freedom, science and urban amenities, many of which he himself was instrumental in conceiving or implementing. For Americans, Franklin is a guidepost and inspiration for the entrepreneurial spirit—vision, purpose and willingness to take risks—to promote the common good. As profuse as were his ideas, resulting in a teeming harvest of innovations, Franklin’s bedrock principle was an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a commitment to use that knowledge for the public good. He literally gave away his ideas: He refused to patent his inventions, preferring that they be in the public domain for society’s benefit rather than profit from them himself. And he was exceptionally generous in letting others improve upon or disseminate his research, even when it was incomplete, “it being of more importance,” he wrote to a friend, “that knowledge should increase than that [I] should be thought an accurate philosopher.”

Implementing Franklin's Vision

The credo of The Pew Charitable Trusts follows Franklin’s belief that “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” We are unequivocally committed to investments in “useful knowledge,” as Franklin advocated: information, facts, research and analysis. The tenet of our work is the power of knowledge to improve American society, and our standards include strict accountability, transparency in the conduct of our business and wise stewardship of our resources.

When knowledge is shared, citizens are more informed and better able to engage meaningfully on matters of common concern. When it is applied to policy-making, laws and regulations are more effective. And knowledge stimulates, and is stimulated by, increased participation in our nation’s civic life and institutions. We call this guiding principle “active knowledge” because we gather data for decidedly practical purposes— the information must be grounded in fact and lead to results for the public good. For example, our information projects based at the Pew Research Center, under the leadership of Andrew Kohut, constitute a “fact tank” to provide the public with timely, credible, nonpartisan data and analyses on key issues and trends. In the policy arena, the rigorous application of accurate and balanced information fosters thoughtful discussion, and we advocate for policies where the facts are clear, evidence is compelling and action is necessary. Knowledge shared and applied makes policy more responsive, strengthens our public institutions, enriches our civic life and serves the public’s interest.

Investing In The Future

As the Trusts pursues the challenges of contemporary society, we look to Franklin’s legacy in acquiring and using knowledge for the common good. Here are three examples of forthcoming work:

Throughout his life, Franklin strived to improve the public health infrastructure through dissemination of his own observations and research, municipal and colonial regulation of waste dumping and such critical projects as fresh-water pipelines. A gradually emerging problem of today is the poor state of our public health system, which has been, in effect, dismantled over the past 30 years. Currently our nation has no thorough, well-coordinated national approach to identifying and responding quickly to pandemics and other outbreaks of diseases or to comparable situations that would potentially affect the health of millions. We are supporting an initiative with Trust for America’s Health, a health-tracking organization, to rebuild our public health system; this project will strive to ensure that federal and state plans to prepare for major public health emergencies are comprehensive, based on sound assumptions and principles, and funded sufficiently.

The oceans were a constant source of study for Franklin, who, in his travels back and forth from Europe, devoted his leisure time to the study of dolphins, climate, weather patterns and the North Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, which he literally put on the map by first charting it scientifically. Today, the oceans constitute the last great frontier on earth, yet we take them for granted—at our peril, since the world’s bounty of fish is endangered, and current regulations will not sustain them. We face disastrous declines in the health of our oceans and in our fish supply unless policy makers take immediate action, for economic as well as environmental reasons. The Trusts will increase our longstanding efforts to better understand and protect this irreplaceable resource.

Finally, Franklin understood that the United States would survive only if its citizens participated in the new government. When he exited the Constitutional Convention and a local resident asked what kind of government the delegates had formed, he famously replied, “A republic, madam—if you can keep it.” The Trusts is dedicated to helping prepare citizens for their civic responsibilities. Our voting research, all of it impartial and issue-neutral, shows that voters who go to the polls when they are young are more likely to make voting a regular practice. We are continuing to identify and disseminate nonpartisan methods for encouraging young people, a reachable but often-ignored constituency, to register to vote, the first step in promoting lifelong participation in the democratic process.

As Franklin realized, the only intractable problems are those left unexamined. The Trusts, in partnership with our many collaborators, is unrelenting in our search for facts that will inform issues on the public agenda and in applying knowledge and resources to addressing them.

Furthering The Franklin Spirit

The Pew Charitable Trusts moves forward with the optimism, vigor, entrepreneurship and sense of civic responsibility that infused Benjamin Franklin. We are guided by an enlightened and engaged board and staffed by experienced professionals who have a passion for their work. As a public charity, we welcome the creative energy—in ideas and resources—of entrepreneurial philanthropists who, like Franklin, recognize that multiple minds working on a difficult problem are better than one.

In the Pew Prospectus 2006 , the Trusts’ program directors describe the philosophy and strategy of their respective areas and then portray a project in which the Trusts’ resources have been applied to help address a pressing social problem. These accomplishments are concrete examples of how we conduct our work, evaluate and improve our efforts, and achieve results in both our longstanding commitments and our new initiatives.

It is a privilege to be part of such a meaningful endeavor—especially in Philadelphia, Franklin’s adopted hometown and, on a personal note, mine as well. This city is the birthplace of American democracy—and of civic projects that profoundly shaped our nation. This proud heritage was rooted in a prepared citizenry, armed with unassailable facts and information and the entrepreneurial will to address the problems of their day. In the future, the specific challenges may change, but the Trusts will always be committed to the power of knowledge to spotlight the important issues, compel people into action on matters of collective concern and improve both government and society in the public interest.

Sincerely,
Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO

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