Improving Public Policy

  • March 05, 2018

The Pew Charitable Trusts applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public, and invigorate civic life, as these recent accomplishments illustrate.

Safe Food Project

Learn More
Trust Magazine Winter 2018

A colorful array of market produce—including gooseberries, blackberries, and blueberries—is protected by contamination by nationwide safety standards passed in 2010. (Joseph Cyr/EyeEm)

Food safety

In 2010, Congress passed the most important food safety legislation since the Great Depression, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Pew played a significant role in garnering support for the law, which fundamentally shifted the Food and Drug Administration’s focus from reacting to foodborne illness outbreaks to actively preventing them. The act gave FDA the authority to mandate recalls of unsafe food and established that food growers and manufacturers have an enforceable responsibility to take steps to prevent contamination of their products. After the law passed, Pew became a leading advocate for adequate funding and strong rules to implement it, including the first nationwide safety standards for fresh fruits and vegetables, and regulations to ensure that imported foods meet the same requirements as domestic products.

Biomedical scholars

Since 1985, Pew has selected more than 900 promising young scientists for multiyear grants. The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences has established a community of researchers who have shared knowledge and whose work has led to numerous discoveries in human health. Three of the scholars have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes. In 1990, the program was expanded to include the Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences, which provides young scientists in Latin America postdoctoral training in the United States and additional funding upon returning to Latin America to start their own labs. And since 2014, the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research, in collaboration with the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust, has supported early-career scientists whose research aims to accelerate discovery and advance progress toward a cure for cancer. 

Cognitive neuroscience

In the early 1980s, Pew’s leaders took notice of a new field of research—cognitive neuroscience—and in 1989 began a collaboration with the James S. McDonnell Foundation to support the nascent discipline, which combines basic and clinical neuroscience principles, computer science, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. In 1996, independent evaluators noted that cognitive neuroscience had “taken off dramatically,” and researchers said the field “would not exist without the support of the two foundations.”

Checking account and prepaid card disclosures

More than 30 financial institutions, including the 12 largest banks and three biggest credit unions, voluntarily adopted Pew’s model checking account disclosure box in the wake of a 2011 Pew report revealing that the median length of disclosure materials for checking account agreements and fee schedules was 111 pages. Pew developed a simple, one-page disclosure statement, similar to a nutrition label for food products, to provide consumers with clear and concise information about the key fees, terms, and conditions of checking accounts. In 2016, new federal protections, partly based on Pew’s recommendations, restricted overdraft fees and required disclosures and conditions on prepaid cards, used by some 23 million Americans, so that consumers could accurately and easily compare the costs of the cards. 

Public health hazards

In 1999, Pew began taking steps to strengthen the public health system by focusing on a way to track environmental health hazards and infectious diseases. Pew awarded a grant to Georgetown University to educate the public and federal policymakers about the benefits of adopting a national approach to tracking and monitoring environmental health. The work eventually lead to the creation of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, which built a public health defense network nimble enough to counter disease threats from nature
or bioterrorism. 

Data-driven corrections policies

Since 2006, Pew has helped three dozen states develop research-based policies to reduce prison populations while lowering reoffense rates and keeping communities safer. These states have avoided billions in prison costs and reinvested much of the money in programs to reduce recidivism.

While Pew has been working with the states, the national incarceration rate has dropped by 13 percent—even as the crime rate also was falling. The project has also worked in seven states for juvenile justice reforms that have yielded an estimated savings of $319 million.

Prekindergarten programs

In 2001, Pew and advocates from nearly 40 states and the District of Columbia partnered with policymakers to increase the quality and availability of pre-K education, a proven way to give children a head start for school. By 2011, when Pew released its final report on the subject, more than 600,000 kids had been added to pre-K classes and enrollment had exceeded 1.3 million children.

State pension systems

A 2010 Pew report highlighted the $1 trillion gap between the retirement benefits promised to public employees and the money states had on hand to pay for them. Pew began working in states and cities to help find solutions to protect promises to employees and help retain a talented workforce. Providing technical support—and acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all answer—Pew has helped seven states and one city develop retirement benefit systems that are affordable and fiscally sustainable. 

Trust Magazine Winter 2018

(Ezra Bailey/Getty Images)

Antibiotics in poultry

In 2015, some of the nation’s largest poultry producers, including Tyson and Perdue, began minimizing use of antibiotics important to public health in order to help preserve the drugs’ effectiveness. Pew worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the poultry industry to formalize a production standard that promotes responsible antibiotic use in commercial production of chicken. In addition, popular chain restaurants such as McDonald’s also began adopting policies to use chicken produced without antibiotics.

Information for voters

Pew has long held the view that voting is a cornerstone of American democracy and has invested in making the electoral process more accountable and accessible. 

In 2009, Pew released the first analysis of states’ voting systems for military personnel stationed overseas, which found that a third of the states did not provide enough time for these voters to receive and return their ballots in order to have them counted. The report, along with further research, led to the passage of the federal 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which brought about significant changes in state laws that have greatly improved the ability of Americans abroad to cast ballots and have their votes counted.

In 2012, Pew helped launch the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a sophisticated data-matching process that state election officials use to cross-reference voter rolls against other official government data and the voter rolls of other states. To date, ERIC has helped its member states identify millions of voters who had moved from their addresses of record but failed to inform election officials, as well as contact more than 25 million eligible but unregistered citizens and provide them with information on the most secure and convenient ways to register to vote.

In February 2013, Pew released the first-of-its-kind Elections Performance Index (EPI), examining election data for 2008 and 2010 in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The EPI evaluates how elections are managed, including data on wait time at polls, problems with voter registrations or absentee ballots, and voter turnout. The index provides a way to compare states’ performance in election administration or to review a state’s progress over time. The EPI subsequently reviewed every federal election. 

In 2016, more voting information was available to more people than in any previous U.S. election—thanks in large measure to the Voting Information Project, a collaboration among state election officials, Pew, Google, and other technology experts that collected state election data, confirmed its accuracy, and made it widely available. The project placed key information on where and how to cast a ballot in places where voters would naturally find it—on social media and frequently visited websites—without requiring the voters to submit any personally identifying information.

Ocean conservation

Supporting the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1970 signaled the beginning of Pew’s decades-long involvement in helping preserve the seas and all that lives in them. The founding of Woods Hole signified a transition from management of a single fish species to focusing on entire marine ecosystems, a philosophy and practice Pew continues to embrace today:

  • In 1988, Pew established a fellowship in conservation, which included scientists working in marine environments. In 1996, the program evolved into one focused exclusively on marine conservation, with three-year grants that support leading natural or social scientists and other experts dedicated to researching the world’s oceans and marine life. Since its inception, the program has awarded funding to more than 164 people from 38 countries.
  • In 2000, Pew helped found Oceana, an organization focused on ending destructive bottom trawling of the world’s oceans and other concerns, as well as on public education and scientific analysis of the challenges to the seas.
  • In 2003, the Pew Oceans Commission published a 144-page report declaring that “the oceans are in crisis and reforms are essential,” which spurred creation of the nation’s first ocean policy to emphasize conservation and helped win bipartisan support in Congress for science-based limits on fishing. From 2000 to 2013, these changes helped restore 34 fish species to healthy levels in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and put the United States on track to ending overfishing in its ocean waters. The U.S. now has one of the best fisheries management systems in the world. 

Parks in the sea

Inspired by national parks on land, Pew and a group of partners established the Global Ocean Legacy project in 2006 and set a goal of creating 15 protected areas in the ocean. The first, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, established that year, lies northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. A decade later, the project has secured commitments for nine marine protected areas across the globe that comprise more than 3 percent of the world’s oceans (a swath larger than Australia), giving the seas’ burdened ecosystems and many endangered creatures a fighting chance to survive. And Pew’s work continues toward creation of six more parks, in partnership with the Bertarelli Foundation. 

The largest marine protected area on the planet

In 2016, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) made history by declaring the Earth’s largest marine protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea—the first time nations have agreed to protect a huge area of the ocean that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any country. Pew worked with CCAMLR’s 24 member countries and the European Union to help them reach consensus on safeguarding this part of the Southern Ocean after they had voted down similar proposals for the previous five years. The 795,000-square-mile (2.06-million-square-kilometer) reserve will protect critical habitat, including breeding and foraging grounds for whales, seals, penguins, krill, and other species. 

American landscapes

Fragmentation and loss of core habitat pose formidable threats to the survival of species and overall biodiversity. So Pew has worked for the protection of large-scale landscapes harboring diverse ecosystems—as well as smaller parcels that connect areas critical to accommodating breeding and migration—by building support for wilderness measures in Congress, advocating for national monuments, and working with the Bureau of Land Management to develop plans that balance conservation and development. Together with local partners, Pew has provided data and recommendations that resulted in new land protections across the nation, including Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada, three California Desert monuments, wilderness designations in New Hampshire and Vermont, Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness in Michigan, Owyhee Canyonlands and Boulder-White Clouds wilderness in Idaho, Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington state, and the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument northeast of Los Angeles.

Trust Magazine Winter 2018

(Getty Images)

Credit card fees and penalties 

A 2009 reform to the credit card industry known as the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act saved consumers more than $20 billion annually, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, by protecting them from unfair or deceptive practices, including hidden fees and high penalties for late payments. The law, which received bipartisan support from Congress, incorporated evidence-based research and findings from a Pew study that evaluated general-purpose credit cards offered online by the 12 largest banks and 12 largest credit unions.

Australia’s Outback and oceans

The Outback is one of the few large-scale natural regions left on Earth, and the oceans surrounding Australia are no less exceptional. Pew has worked with Indigenous people, scientists, community and conservation organizations, industry, and government agencies to obtain huge areas of protection in Outback Australia and the adjacent remote seas. 

When Pew began work in Australia in 2007, less than 4 percent of the nation’s waters were safeguarded from overfishing and industry as marine sanctuaries. Since then, Pew has helped create the world’s largest network of marine sanctuaries and reserves there, covering 591,000 square miles, or 35 percent of Australia’s waters. On land, Pew’s efforts have resulted in state and federal commitments to preserve more than 176 million acres of the Outback. 

A key part of this success is the Country Needs People campaign. Pew works with Aboriginal communities whose ancestors have lived on the land for some 65,000 years to create Indigenous Ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas (parks on Aboriginal-owned lands) that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits for Indigenous populations in remote areas. Australia’s federal and states governments have invested and committed more than $880 million into this work. 

The boreal forest

Vital to the health of the globe, Canada’s boreal forest—the most intact forest on Earth and a major habitat for key mammal species—stores more carbon than tropical forests, offsetting the equivalent of 26 years of global emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Thanks to the efforts of First Nations, conservation organizations, scientists, and industry members, actions to safeguard more than 867 million acres of the boreal have been secured: Pew began working with partners to preserve the boreal in 2000 with a goal of protecting 1 billion acres by 2022.