The trouble with the future,” said the American humorist Arnold H. Glasow, “is that it usually arrives before we're ready for it.” One way we can be ready for the future, however, is to enter unknown territory with a solid grounding in facts and research.
In these difficult economic times, many Americans are increasingly concerned about losing the opportunity to build a better life for their loved ones and themselves. More than six decades ago, J. Howard Pew, a founder of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said of our nation, “Here, the door of opportunity has been kept open for every man, irrespective of creed, class or color. Here, men found that when they succeeded, they were rewarded in proportion to their achievements.”
While our country has not always achieved that noble ideal, pride in determining our own futures, regardless of our origins, remains a pillar of our national identity as well as a critical focus of our efforts at the Trusts.
In launching the Economic Mobility Project two years ago—well before financial markets began to plummet—we aimed to gauge how Americans move up or down the economic ladder. Like all of Pew's work, the initiative is nonpartisan and grounded in reliable data. It unites nationally recognized, and ideologically diverse, scholars, economists, social scientists and policy experts. Last year, both major presidential campaigns consulted the project's research, which continues to serve as a valued resource for the public, elected leaders and the media.
Inspired by this broad appetite for the initiative's findings, last year we expanded our focus and created the Economic Policy department, whose mandate includes two additional areas: measuring and quantifying federal intervention in the markets; and encouraging responsible, transparent fiscal and budget policy. No sooner had we completed that step than the future “arrived,” in the form of a financial meltdown and global recession.
Currently, our work is not only addressing the challenges of today but also preparing for tomorrow by advancing lasting and comprehensive reforms to the regulations that govern our financial system. However unclear the path to a more vibrant economy, we trust that fact-based research will illuminate the best means of addressing a crisis that has been compounded by a lack of transparency and understanding.
To enter a new era of accountability, we must begin by sharing information openly and freely. We depend on the media to support a healthy democracy, yet recent newspaper bankruptcies and market disruption threaten the availability of accurate reporting—a “future” that has been anticipated for more than a decade but, following Glasow's adroit observation, one that arrived before many of us were ready.
And so Americans find ourselves asking questions that seem scarcely conceivable: Can the news industry reinvent itself in time to survive? Will its norms—including original reporting that, at its best, provides critical information and holds powerful institutions and individuals responsible for their actions—continue to play a vital role in new media? What kind of ethical guidelines can we expect from journalism in new media? Will reporters be able to put events in larger, more meaningful contexts at a time when people read and write in 140-character tweets? How will new kinds of journalism contribute to a free society and healthy democracy?
When Pew launched the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) in 1997, the initiative focused on evaluating the press and helping journalists clarify their professional principles. Over the years, while PEJ's commitment to nonpartisan, non-ideological nonpolitical research has remained constant, the scope of its studies has evolved significantly. Now—as part of the Pew Research Center—PEJ is interpreting the information revolution through content analyses and factbased commentaries. Whatever challenges the future holds, we hope that the project's thoughtful, empirical and increasingly detailed portrait of the profession will help prepare journalists— and all Americans—to meet them.
Warnings that pollution, overfishing and mismanagement could impoverish the world's oceans have been sounded for a century now, but these alarms take on greater urgency now that 90 percent of Earth's large predatory fish are disappearing. While many people have increasingly appreciated the need to conserve wilderness on land, we are only beginning to understand the similar need to protect marine environments.
Fortunately, when President George W. Bush designated three marine national monuments in January, reliable science and effective longrange planning triumphed over short-term interests. Following our 2006 success in helping to protect waters in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Pew partnered for two years with national and international stakeholders to build support for a large-scale marine reserve within the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. We published first-of-their-kind scientific and economic assessments, convened public forums and stimulated vigorous discussion. The result speaks volumes for the power of knowledge.
Indeed, while we are rarely able to predict what will happen in the future, we can prepare—by relying on objective data, reliable research and a diverse array of informed perspectives. Even as the scope of our work at Pew grows broader, our philosophy remains constant: As Pew Charitable Trusts founder J.N. Pew Jr. said decades ago, “Tell the truth, and trust the people.”
Read more about Pew's work in the Summer 2009 issue of Trust magazine (PDF).