Ideas, Policy, and Politics: The Role of Independent Research in Partisan Times

From a speech at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, March 28, 2006

The fact that one of our nation’s Founding Fathers should also be the founder of this university is a good starting point for my remarks. Thomas Jefferson personified—perhaps even epitomized—the proposition that good governance is based on good ideas, and that good ideas are based on respect for facts, rigor in thinking, rationality in debate, and civility in discourse.

Moreover, Jefferson’s name is associated with the word Independence, with a capital “I.” Two of the three accomplishments for which he wanted to be remembered were the Virginia statute on religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence. And the third accomplishment of which he was so proud—this university—was created with another I-word in mind: the impact it would have on public affairs, especially through the education of good citizens and leaders in both political parties—to wit, UVA graduates such as Ted Kennedy and George Allen.

“Independence” and “impact” are two thirds of a trinity of virtues that are critical to public policy research. The third, overriding virtue, I’m sure you’d all agree, is quality—as in intellectual quality: the kind of quality that can only be attained in an atmosphere that fosters the right combination of discipline and imagination, an openness to the constructive criticism of peers, and the active encouragement of a diversity of views.

Those basic values—quality, independence, and impact—are important not just to Mister Jefferson’s university and to the center that Burkett Miller established here, but also to the institution that Robert S. Brookings founded in Washington. We have a common stake not just in upholding those values, but in defending them when they’re in jeopardy, as I think is the case today.