News Release

New Brookings Survey of Academics Shows Need to Redress Past Failures as Well as Meet New Challenges

December 20, 2001

A sampling of the nation’s economists, historians, political scientists, and sociologists believe arms control, increasing health care access for poor Americans, and improving K-12 education should be among the federal government’s top priorities during the coming decades.

Conversely, the academics agreed that stabilizing agricultural prices, expanding home ownership, and reducing illegal drug use should not be among the federal government’s top priorities in the years ahead.

The survey, conducted from July 2001 through October 2001, included 550 responses drawn from a sample of over 2,000 academics from the members of the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, and the American Economic Association. To make sure that no one discipline was given more of a voice due to higher response rates, all totals were weighted so that each discipline was given equal voice.

According to this group of academics, the federal government’s top priorities for the future are clear (percentages in parentheses indicate those respondents who chose this issue as a top priority):

1. Increase Arms Control and Disarmament (65%)
2. Increase Health-Care Access for Low-Income Americans (59%)
3. Expand and Protect the Right to Vote (53%)
4. Promote Financial Security in Retirement (51%)
5. Provide Assistance for the Working Poor (47%)
6. (tie) Improve Air Quality (43%)
     Increase Health Care Access for Older Americans
8. Improve Elementary and Secondary Education (41%)
9. Reduce Workplace Discrimination (39%)
10. Strengthen the National Defense (36%)

These academics generally agreed as well on the federal government’s ten least important priorities for the future:

11. (tie) Improve Government Performance (13%)
      Reduce Dependency Among Welfare Recipients
9. (tie) Strengthen the Nation’s Highway System (10%)
      Help Victims of Disaster
7. Devolve Responsibility to the States (8%)
6. (tie) Increase Market Competition (6%)
      Reduce Illegal Drug Use
4. (tie) Support Veterans Readjustment and Training (5%)
      Promote Space Exploration
2. Expand Home Ownership
1. Stabilize Agricultural Prices (2%)

The sample of academics is not representative of the public as a whole. It is overwhelmingly white, male, liberal, and Democratic. Although the responses varied by ideology, demographics, and discipline, the overall rankings would not have changed unless disproportionately large number of economists (the most conservative of the disciplines surveyed), conservatives, or Republicans had been added to the sample.

The survey results offer three lessons to the federal government about setting priorities for the future. First, federal achievement in the past is the basis for both priority and disinterest in the future. The fact that the federal government has done so well on financial security in retirement, expanding the right to vote, providing health care access for the elderly, and improving air quality in the past is no reason to stop those endeavors now, the academics believe. Yet, the fact that the federal government also did well in strengthening the highway system, helping veterans readjust to civilian life, and promoting space exploration is not cause for continuation. At least for these academics, the federal government has done enough in these areas.

Second, these academics believe that the federal government has important work to do addressing some of its most notable failures. Expanding health care access for poor Americans was rated number 34 of 50 in a survey conducted last year of government’s greatest achievements of the past half-century. Improving elementary and secondary education was number 35 and providing assistance for the working poor was number 40 in last year’s survey?in large part because these issues are so difficult to solve.

Third, September 11th had a clear impact on the list of priorities. The academics who completed the survey after the 11th were more likely to give a higher priority to both arms control (a top priority for 69% after versus 56% before) and health care access for low-income Americans (61% versus 52%), probably because of heightened concerns about an unsafe world.

Post-September 11th respondents also gave a number of terrorist-related endeavors higher ratings as priorities: strengthening the nation’s airways systems (37% post September 11th versus 16% pre-September 11th), ensuring an adequate energy supply (32% versus 20%), and enhancing the nation’s health care infrastructure (25% versus 13%).

In addition to ranking the future endeavors that should be top priorities, respondents were also asked which of the greatest endeavors of the last 50 years the federal government should continue to pursue. Ninety-eight percent believed that the federal government should continue to work toward improving air quality; and 97% said that reducing disease and ensuring safe food and drinking water should continue to be on the federal government’s agenda. Conversely, 46% believed that the federal government should not continue to be engaged in devolving responsibility to the states, and 45% believed the federal government should not be involved in future efforts to promote and protect democracy.

According to Paul C. Light, the author of the report and the Director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, whether the priorities pinpointed in the survey will become the federal government’s greatest achievements during the next half century depends largely on a choice between two very different futures.

“The first future is one in which the nation’s leaders are able to maintain the bipartisan spirit that marks so much of government’s past achievement,” Light said. “The second future is one in which Congress and presidents worry so much about their reelections and popularity that they demand immediate success or none at all, young Americans continue to avoid government service for fear of dead-end careers and bureaucratic red-tape, and the nation’s leaders continue to demean government and its civic partners for not being able to do more with less and less.”

Paul C. Light is the vice president and director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is also the founding director of the Institution’s Center for Public Service, the senior adviser to the Brookings Presidential Appointee Initiative, and the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow. Judith Labiner, who served as research director for the report, is the deputy director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution.

The Center for Public Service is supported by grants from the Dillon Fund, the Ford Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Smith-Richardson Foundation, individual gifts from an anonymous funder and James A. Johnson, Chairman of the Brookings Institution board. The Center was established in 1999 to improve the odds that America’s most talented citizens will choose careers in the public service. Toward that goal, the Center is committed to rigorous research and practical recommendations for making public service more attractive.

For a full copy of the report and for more information about this survey as well as last year’s Government’s Greatest Endeavors of the Last Half Century, visit our Web site at or contact Gina Russo at 202-797-6405.

About Brookings

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to conduct in-depth, nonpartisan research to improve policy and governance at local, national, and global levels.