Working at a research institution in post-factual times

By Beatrice Gohdes
On a day in early November of 2016, Stockholm experienced a rare moment when the public transport system broke down under a mountain of snow, not witnessed so forcefully in early winter during the last 100 years. The chill factor was compounded by the news of the presidential election in the United States. That icy-cold November day exemplified the attitude most European media and mainstream politicians held towards the political reality unfolding in Washington: namely the feeling of a looming catastrophe and the bewilderment at the endless blizzard of tweets coming from the president-elect.
About six months into his divisive presidency (it was the Monday after the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement), I arrived in Washington, D.C., where I could only describe the atmosphere in the Capital – with the prevailing weather conditions – as steaming-hot. A mere 4% of Washingtonians had voted for the new president. And yet he now lives in their midst – as do I. Biking to work every morning along a truly picturesque route, I cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge, roll past the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and on to the Washington Monument. Even along this route, I can feel the tension, as I have been repeated spectator to fellow commuters raising their fists in frustration at the White House when it comes into view just before they turn around the Monument.
Against this backdrop I started my internship, the first leg of the Wallenberg International Fellows Program, at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a think tank focusing on how to tackle environmental issues by leveraging economic opportunities to create human well-being. In the discussions I have had with my colleagues on the new political reality here, I have been surprised once again: the underlying mood is calmly-collected and focused on how to deal with reality – quite a contrast to the incessant media outrage at home. The strategy appears to be a calm focus on a structured approach to achieving long-lasting impact in times of political turbulence.
Admittedly, the mood at WRI is far from jovial. My colleagues are especially frustrated by the new administration’s open ignorance towards science and facts. Yet there is a sense of quiet optimism and the will to focus on the silver lining that this situation has brought with it. For example, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement galvanized almost all the other signatories to publicly re-declare their intention to fulfill the targets set for themselves. This new-found sense of global unity is quite encouraging when working towards environmentally healthier and more prosperous communities.
Still, I asked myself, how can a think tank create change in such an unfavorable environment? Over the course of my summer internship I believe I have been fortunate enough to find an answer: First, optimism is essential, as it helps to conceive a strategy bold enough to make a difference. Quite naturally, this avoids paralysis. Second, in times when facts seem to become irrelevant, a consistent output of messages that are backed up by solid research and facts is even more important. This builds trust in the long term for the simple reason that it aspires to truth. Moreover, if these messages are strategically placed, they can go a long way towards influencing the right decision makers, now and in the future.