Policymaking can be a slow process. Often the underlying problem is complex, solutions are unclear, and there are ideological and substantive disagreements to be aired and addressed. At every step in this process, facts can provide the foundation for conversation and compromise. So the first step in effective policymaking is gathering the evidence: the data, the case studies, and the range of research that can inform smart decisions.
As the pandemic is teaching us, this isn’t always a linear process. Initial observations are tested and dismissed. Early evidence that looks promising can later turn out to be incomplete. But the dogged pursuit of facts—often time-consuming—is essential in order to eventually make a case for policies that can solve problems and make our lives better.
In this issue of Trust, we’re sharing stories about Pew taking on difficult challenges over time by gathering and analyzing relevant facts—often in collaboration with outside experts and stakeholders—that can lead to policy prescriptions with real meaning and long-lasting impact.
Our cover story is about plastics. From water bottles to computer keyboards and grocery bags to polyester clothing, plastics are ubiquitous in our economy and daily lives. And now they are ubiquitous in the world’s ocean. Pew and our partners spent more than two years studying the data and, in a report released in July, revealed the extent of the problem: 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, a number that could grow to 29 million metric tons in two decades if nothing changes.
But the data also offers good news: Existing technology and practices are already available to help industry and governments make a difference. Using first-of-its-kind modeling, the report concluded that with challenging but possible systemic change, we can reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean about 80% by 2040.
Another long-term challenge is the backlog of required repairs in America’s national parks—a list, as we note in our story, with a price tag that approaches $12 billion. To address this long-neglected issue, we collected economic data showing that outdoor recreation contributes $778 billion to the national economy and generates 5.2 million American jobs. This evidence base helped conservation organizations, businesses, veterans, anglers, and Indigenous people across the country make a case for the Great American Outdoors Act, which Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in August. The act provides up to $6.65 billion for priority repairs in our national parks and another $900 million to fully support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, making it the biggest infusion of funding to the parks in a half-century.
Collecting data as a first step toward evidence-based policies can take months or even years. But some challenges can’t wait that long. That’s certainly the case with the coronavirus. There is still much to learn about this virus, and science will eventually provide the answers. But we knew from the outset that health care workers and first responders need reliable and accessible personal protection equipment. Manu Prakash, a 2013 Pew biomedical scholar, led a team at Stanford University that modified off-the-shelf full-face snorkel masks with medical-grade air filters. These Pneumasks, as the lab calls them, are reusable and cost-effective. You can read about the Pneumask and other stories related to the continuing impact of COVID-19 in this issue.
As these stories show, facts and data are essential because they provide a shared language to discuss and dissect society’s challenges. Although there can be disagreement on specific policy answers, solid evidence illustrates problems and points to paths forward, allowing competing interests to come together to work for the good of us all.
Susan K. Urahn, President and CEO, The Pew Charitable Trusts
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Data-driven state policy innovations across America