Thomas Edison was America’s most prolific inventor of the 20th century, holding nearly 1,100 patents in the United States. This record of success seems to prove Edison’s maxim that “to have a great idea, have a lot of them.”
As the world confronts the effects of the coronavirus, it will take great ideas—a lot of them—to invigorate public health, rebuild economies, grow our investment
in science, and encourage innovation. In a series of stories that leads off this issue of Trust, we provide information that can help accomplish these goals: The Pew Research Center analyzes survey results showing the virus’s widespread impact on Americans’ daily lives, Pew biomedical scholar Marta Łuksza answers questions about how new viruses emerge and new vaccines are developed, and we report on how states can plan for the fiscal implications of the virus on their budgets and services.
This is not the first time Pew has recognized the threat of pandemics. Fifteen years ago, we made grants to the Trust for America’s Health to help key decision-makers at the federal, state, and local level develop plans to manage the effects of a major infectious disease outbreak. Those efforts included partnerships with the American Medical Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and educational campaigns that warned that in the time it would take to develop a vaccine to fight a new virus, hospitals would be overrun, ventilators and effective medications would be in short supply, and medical care would have to be rationed. Pew also worked with experts to develop a set of best practices for states, informing resources that are still being provided today by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
As Georges Benjamin, then the executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in a 2006 Trust story about those efforts, “It’s not a matter of if a pandemic flu will happen, but when.”
Today, unsurprisingly, states are at the forefront of efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak—and, concurrently, plan for an economic recession. Dozens of state and local governments—working with Pew—are using data to inform policy, make funding decisions, and help better manage everything from disaster response to expanding broadband and tracking infectious diseases, all things that will be especially relevant in responding to the pandemic, as we explain in this issue.
Still another challenge that states are confronting is improving transportation infrastructure. In an innovative attempt to protect people and animals, some Western states are investing in smart solutions to address the mass migration of wildlife across streets, bridges, and highways. As we report in this issue, environmental scientists and traffic engineers at the state level are finding solutions to a problem that costs more than $8 billion annually.
Government innovation relies on open discussion and reliable information. But since 2004, 2,100 local newspapers have closed in the United States—and the number of newspaper employees has dropped 47 percent. As print advertising revenue has shrunk, digital ads have not kept up for many news organizations. Newspapers can try to make up for lost earnings, but, as the story “The Loss of Local News” reports, once a hometown paper shutters its doors, the communities it served cannot make up the lost attention to local government, civic life, and commerce. One bright spot is in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where a small group of local investors bought The Berkshire Eagle from a large out-of-state media company, hired additional staff, and launched new content. As you’ll read here, local ownership of newspapers is an old idea made new again, helping to rebuild the connection between a community and its paper in a modern, digital age.
Innovation also requires people trying new things in new roles. So I’m closing this column on a personal note: I’m transitioning into a senior adviser role at Pew on July 1. I’m delighted to say that our board found a new president and CEO very close to home: Susan Urahn, our executive vice president and chief program officer, who has been with Pew for more than 25 years. Sue is an ideal person for these times, with deep experience working with states and a keen appreciation for the environmental challenges facing the globe. I expect that, like Thomas Edison, she will relish the opportunity to find and develop good ideas—a lot of them.