The historian James Allen Smith traces the evolution of Washington’s oldest and prototypical think tank on the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1991. Dedicated to bringing expertise to bear on public policy issues, Brookings has been a pioneer in bridging the disparate worlds of social science research and American policymaking. But while its efforts have been made steady, there have been frustrations and controversy over the years. Inspired by the scientific management and government efficiency movements in the Progressive Era, Brookings has evolved from an organization that consulted with government agencies on accounting and personnel practices into an institution with a wide-ranging research and publishing program as well as active public policy education and media outreach efforts. Smith vividly tells of the key individuals, beginning with Robert Brookings, who have shaped the institution. He recounts its relationships with financial supporters and presidential administrations, and he candidly discusses the problems surrounding efforts at funding. Smith places the Brookings research program in an intellectual context and within the changing policymaking environment of Washington. He reveals how Brookings has withstood seventy-five years of shifts in national politics, external perceptions on the institution, and internal leadership to emerge as one of the most prominent sources of policy expertise in the world.
The proliferation of private think tanks and the expansion of governmental research agencies in the past quarter century have changed the policy environment. The Brookings Institution, on its seventy-fifth anniversary, offers a singular vantage point from which to observe the ever-changing relationship between expert knowledge and political decisionmaking in our democracy.
James Allen Smith is a historian and author of The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite (Free Press, 1991).