Innovation for a Changing World

  • October 07, 2015
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

Editor’s Recommendation

More Notes from the President

October 2, 2017

Innovation is critical to the values and mission of The Pew Charitable Trusts, predating even our creation in 1948. Two of our founders, J. Howard Pew and J.N. Pew Jr., held several patents as young entrepreneurs in the early 20th century. Years later, in 1945, J.N. was awarded patent number 2,462,670 for a “ship of monolithic structure,” now commonly referred to as a supertanker.

Today we tend to associate innovation with cars that drive themselves, immunotherapy to treat cancer, and satellites that reach Pluto. But innovation does not have to be the next great leap of cutting edge science or engineering. No less of a scientific genius than Albert Einstein said, “When the solution is simple, God is answering.”

This issue of Trust highlights relatively simple solutions that can help solve big problems. For example, one of today’s great challenges is overfishing of the world’s oceans, which endangers the marine environment and the economies of coastal communities. Overcoming this threat requires strategies for reducing accidental “bycatch”—the snaring of fish that are not the intended target of fishermen. Often they are threatened species such as the western Atlantic bluefin tuna, magnificent sea creatures that spawn in the Gulf of Mexico but whose numbers began to plummet in the 1950s.

Since 2009, Pew has been working with fishermen in the Gulf on an innovative but straightforward solution called a “green stick.” The idea was borrowed from the Japanese, who made the sticks out of bamboo. Now, even though they’re made from fiberglass, the keep-it-simple principle is the same: Bolt a 40-foot stick upright to the deck of a boat and run out hundreds of feet of line with hooks disguised as plastic squids that bounce along the surface of the water.

Innovation does not have to be the next great leap of cutting edge science or engineering. No less of a scientific genius than Albert Einstein said, 'When the solution is simple, God is answering.' 

As you’ll read in this issue’s cover story, yellowfin find the plastic squid irresistible. But bluefin, swimming much deeper, stay away—and are no longer being captured as bycatch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is now considering paying longline fishermen in the southern U.S. to convert from barbed longlines to green sticks—a low-tech solution with a big payoff for our oceans.

Innovative devices are not the only kind of high-impact-but-easy-to-implement solutions to difficult problems. Creative programs can have a similar effect. Today, one aspect of America’s public health challenge is the lack of adequate preventive or early oral health care, especially for more than 18 million low-income children on Medicaid and the almost 48 million Americans who live in areas with a shortage of dentists. But as explained in “Something to Smile About,” midlevel dental providers—often called dental therapists— represent a new approach to provide quality care.

Similar to physician assistants and working under the supervision of a dentist, these midlevel providers perform routine procedures, such as filling cavities, while allowing dentists to focus on more complex cases. Midlevel providers practice in Alaska and Minnesota, and were recently authorized in Maine. Another 10 states have introduced legislation to create this new category of oral health professional.

This kind of cost-effective innovation drives change. But so do demographics. We see that in a new Pew Research Center report titled “Multiracial in America.” It finds that 6.9 percent of the people in the United States have at least two races in their background; nearly half of all multiracial Americans are younger than 18; and the percentage of multiracial children younger than 12 months old has grown from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013.

The report, which you can read about in this issue of Trust, illustrates broader trends in our country’s demographic and social landscape which are almost certain to have a significant effect on our nation’s politics, culture, and ability to think anew and find common ground. Indeed, many multiracial Americans believe they are more open to differing perspectives because of their backgrounds. These are not only ingredients for a more diverse country; they are also healthy signs that innovation will continue to embody the American spirit—and move it forward.