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Tuesday, April 19, 2005 | This is part two in a four-part series. Read part one, part three and part four.

Ever wonder how lawmakers and others who set policy come to the decisions they make? We tend to think that it comes from their close contact with constituencies. Or from studying opinion polls or other methods of assessing public wants and needs. Or from a careful study of history and the deeper implications of the issue being considered. Or from deliberations among knowledgeable colleagues. But we’d probably be wrong.

Most observers of the policymaking process now point to the intensive work of an array of think tanks as the determining force in decision making. The most influential are those that promote a particular political ideology. Nine of the top 10 are now conservative, and are credited with having moved both the policymakers and the general public in the dramatic shift from the political center to the right that has taken place in the past two decades. They accomplish this mainly through presenting their research and the ideas of their members via speeches, press conferences, interviews, talk shows, opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines and meetings with politicians.

Responsible policymakers, however, need help from a different kind of think tank, one that is not ideologically bound, and one that can mobilize the wisdom of experienced leaders unavailable to the existing institutes, some of whom represent fields of interest typically not considered by policymakers, but nevertheless bringing valuable insights.

To meet that need, La Jolla’s Western Behavioral Sciences Institute created such a think tank, the International Leadership Forum. Capitalizing on technological advances, it is organized as a virtual community, linked by the Internet. The ILF is a global, nonpartisan, Internet-based group composed of 80 highly influential leaders deliberating together on the great policy issues of our time. These diverse leaders include CEOs, scientists, diplomats, journalists, artists, writers and academicians – all at the very top of their fields. Because they are extremely busy and live all over the world, it would be impossible to organize them in any other way. The Internet enables them to collaborate in generating the wisdom so necessary for policymakers.

San Diegans submerged in this think tank

The dozens of conferences conducted so far – most of which are available along with interviews and commentaries in our electronic magazine, the ILF Digest – always present ideas that challenge received wisdom and bring a fresh point of view.

A new perspective on global warming

Climatologist Taylor, the conference leader and a global warming skeptic, was joined in that view by Douglas Strain, founding chairman of Electro Scientific Industries, long an observer of environmental consequences of energy decisions, and science novelist Michael Crichton, whose new bestseller, State of Fear, also takes a skeptical view of the global warming scare.

Siding with the majority of scientists concerned about the human contribution to a potential disaster were Carl Hodges, director emeritus of the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Laboratory, and Jane Poynter, CEO of Paragon Space Development Corp. and a celebrated member of the team of Biospherians sealed for two years in the famous experiment for sustaining a livable environment called Biosphere II.

In addition to that conference being a dialogue rather than a polarizing argument (an important aspect of all ILF conferences), its truly unique feature was the contribution that noted British anthropologist Mary Douglas made. She helped all of us understand how this policy issue will be determined not only by the science, but also by the predictable behavior of the cultural groups to which the various players belong. We were able to bring the social sciences and humanities together with the physical sciences to gain a completely fresh perspective.

Joining science and the humanities

The great need is for a diverse community of leaders, who through intense but civilized dialogue can make the invisible visible, get at the facts, offer wise judgments, and formulate creative policy recommendations.

But they must be a special breed, capable of seeing the story behind the story because they have been there, lived it, and know the inner workings of corporations, professions and governments. They must be able to entertain and resolve big disagreements. They must find gratification in getting at the truth when it goes against conventional thinking, even when it counters their own previous thinking. Finally, they must be mobilized by an organization that is adventurous, independent, global, nonpartisan, not ideologically bound, but steeped in a tradition of scientific research and dedicated to speaking truth to power.

As it happens, right here in San Diego we have such an organization and such a special group of leaders in WBSI’s International Leadership Forum.

Next in this series, WBSI and the Mental Health Challenge

Richard Farson is a psychologist, author, president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, www.wbsi.org, and executive director of its International Leadership Forum.

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