Think Tank Leader's Principled Wisdom Will Be Missed

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By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Among the endangered species in Washington these days is the independent, nonpartisan, non-ideological think tank -- an organization that can't be bought, can't be intimidated, and whose work cannot be ignored.

For a time, these were among the capital's most important intermediating institutions, providing the hard data and analytical framework for policymakers to prioritize issues, resolve the clash of interests and overcome the special interests. But in today's hyper-partisan and ideological climate, many of these organizations have been co-opted, bullied or forced to choose sides.

One notable exception is Resources for the Future, which for more than 50 years has brought the rigor of economic analysis to the consideration of environmental issues. Founded during the Truman administration to analyze the then-fashionable notion that the world was about to run out of resources, RFF was known for churning out scrupulously objective research and intriguing ideas. But while the scholarship was first-rate, much of it was aimed at the readers of the scientific journals rather than policymakers and participants in the increasingly heated political debates over environmental regulation.

Paul Portney changed all that. As an RFF scholar for the past 33 years, and president for the past 10, he showed not only a knack for identifying early on the issues and ideas that would one day take center stage, but also a facility in communicating research results in ways that made them useful to laymen. And while careful to avoid turning RFF into an advocacy group, he never shied away from using the facts to challenge business interests that reflexively opposed all regulation, or environmental groups that never met one they didn't like.

An effective fundraiser, Portney built a classy new headquarters on the edge of what was once a marginal neighborhood, along with a $70 million endowment that assured RFF its financial independence. His board of directors is chock-full of high-power business executives and committed environmental activists who may agree on little else other than that Paul Portney and his crew are the straightest shooters in town.

"My first instinct was to be very skeptical, to think that this was simply an organization designed to create a patina of objectivity for anti-regulatory conclusions," said David Hawkins, who has been on the staff of the Natural Resources Defense Council since its founding more than 30 years ago.

Hawkins said the traditional environmental view was that economic analysis was inherently biased against regulation because the costs were relatively easy to determine, while the benefits were, by nature, speculative and difficult to quantify. "But Paul was persistent and persuasive, and he turned me around," said Hawkins, now an RFF director.

Another supporter is John Rowe, chief executive of Exelon, a Chicago-based utility, who speaks for much of the business community when he says of RFF's staff of 35 researchers: "Their hearts are generally green, but they don't lie about the numbers. They have an enormous amount of credibility with both sides."

Indeed, when Congress couldn't get a straight answer on the true state of the Superfund program a few years back, it turned to RFF for the answer. And when the National Academy of Sciences was charged with delivering the definitive evaluation of government fuel-efficiency standards, it was Portney, as chairman, who defended the panel's Solomonic conclusions: Mileage standards saved a lot of energy, but at the expense of having lighter, more dangerous cars.

Over the next few weeks, the Senate will consider a bipartisan proposal to set caps on greenhouse gas emissions from electricity plants -- but allow utilities to violate those limits by buying "pollution rights" from companies that exceed the standards. "Cap and trade" is an RFF idea hatched decades ago and patiently promoted over the years despite the objection of environmentalists, who distrusted markets and were morally offended by the idea of government giving someone a right to pollute. Now, ironically, it is the enviros who are pushing the plan adamantly opposed by the supposedly market-oriented Bush administration.

A youthful and still curious 60-year-old, Portney now heads out to Tucson for a second career as the new dean of the University of Arizona's business school. In RFF he leaves behind an institution greatly strengthened by his innovative research and wise leadership but increasingly isolated in a capital where winning is more important than getting things right and even science has been politicized.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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