Report

Notes from the President: Useful Knowledge (Spring 2006 Trust Magazine)

Sudoku, the logic puzzle of grids and numbers, is all the rage nowadays. And so it was, too, in the 1730s—at least to the 20-ish clerk of the colonial Pennsylvania Assembly, who made up sudoku-like “magic squares,” passing the time by exercising and extending his reasoning skills.

That staff member was Benjamin Franklin. He preferred to keep his mind at full throttle, as he did more consistently later in his life, when he was dealing with challenges of great consequence—in science, politics, diplomacy, business, the arts or the civic infrastructure, to name a few of his pursuits—and his knowledge could be, as he desired, “of real use.”

His magic squares are on display in Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, an exhibition that opened at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center in December and will travel nationally and internationally to honor his life and help the 21st century understand his enduring legacy. Through a great variety of displays, we all have the opportunity to rediscover his unceasing inquisitiveness, his ability to think expansively, pragmatically and effectively, and his eagerness to improve his era with inventions and ideas.

Franklin was amazingly consistent in his approach. He always assembled evidence and applied his analytical skills to the facts (or created experiments) until they provided a coherent explanation of the world around him. He then based his subsequent action on that well-grounded interpretation, which he called “useful knowledge.”

To help celebrate Franklin's 300th birthday anniversary this year, the Trusts is proud to support In Search of a Better World as a gift to the nation. The exhibition helps us appreciate, ever more strongly, the many dimensions of his mind and achievements. And we witness an extraordinary example of how one citizen can play a central role in shaping our society, a paradigm of civic engagement.

At the Trusts, we also believe in the power of knowledge to improve American society. Our guiding principle is useful knowledge, because we gather information for decidedly practical purposes that will lead to results for the public good—as in our work on global climate change. More than a decade of Trusts investments in research and analysis has helped inform the debate on this crucial and urgent issue.

A growing number of scientific studies demonstrate that our world is heating up, and this alteration will create enormous problems on every continent. Computer modeling and data extrapolation remain a mainstay of science, but mathematical models are now complemented by direct observation of the consequences of global warming on flora and fauna.

With such an important problem upon us, policy makers will need to make difficult decisions. Credible, balanced, nonpartisan scientific research will be an extraordinarily important way to both inform them and the public and help everyone understand the need for prompt action to mitigate climate change's adverse effects.

A headline in USA Today last year— “The Debate's Over: Globe is Warming”— seems to echo the sentiment of many leading scientists, businesses and an increasing number of American elected officials at all levels. Climatechange resolutions are emerging in Congress, governors of several states have announced major emissions reduction initiatives, and mayors have pledged municipal actions to reduce the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions.

In February, more than 80 Christian leaders in the Trusts-supported Evangelical Climate Initiative released a statement vowing to fight global warming. “For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority,” they acknowledged. “Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough,” and they went on to offer a four-point “moral argument” for addressing the problem.

These actions are promising. We may be on the threshold of meaningful progress in climate policy, as solid, unbiased scientific evidence is beneficially applied to inform the debate.

Useful knowledge is also broadening discussions on the benefits of voluntary, universal early education for three- and four-year-olds.

The information, however, goes beyond more academically and socially adept children, better school performance and improved job prospects. Three long-term experiments with preschoolers who are now adults demonstrate an economic return of as much as $17 for each $1 invested in prekindergarten. And computer modeling shows that high-quality prekindergarten has longterm economic value as a potential remedy for the decline of productivity in the U.S. workforce, a problem that American businesses already recognize as a top priority. These data constitute useful knowledge that can be the basis of informed policy.

Our founding fathers revered sound evidence. “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin gave us a map for that journey. With the problems of today every bit as complex as those he faced, we continue to pursue his strategy for effective policy: Find the facts and then let them guide society in taking an informed and thoughtful course of action.

Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO