From the floods in Houston to the crisis in the Middle East, the Baker Institute seeks solutions to pressing problems

After discussing energy, immigration, guns, flooding, foreign relations, transportation, elections and health care, Ambassador David M. Satterfield turned to poetry. Satterfield, director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy, reads a few lines from a poem by Sam Walter Foss wrote in the 1950s: The heat of the sun will be released in 10 million years/And he worries about that.

Satterfield quotes Foss in response to a series of preposterous headlines about Pangea Ultima, the volcanic supercontinent that could destroy humanity in 250 million years.

“Here we focus on things,” said Satterfield, who was appointed by President Joe Biden as U.S. special envoy for humanitarian issues in the Middle East on Sunday and will address the escalating crisis. maybe not so far-fetched and focus on things a little more pressing. in Gaza.

Elon Musk is busy establishing an interplanetary human settlement. ALRIGHT. But there are problems that have been with us for hundreds and hundreds of years that are clearly identified and understood and need to be addressed now.

So the Baker Institute leaves the hypothetical apocalypse to the doomsayers and the poets who mock them. For three decades, the public policy center has instead identified political, social, cultural, scientific, economic, and infrastructure issues as more pressing than the slow march toward a supercontinent. Uninhabitable volcanic terrain.

Since its founding in 1994 by Houston native and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Baker Institute has attracted experts or fellows in these fields to research issues, collect and present data and engage with public and private decision makers to develop solutions. prescriptive pathways toward improvement.

ALSO BY ANDREW DANSBY: Dr Peter Hotez on his new book, Anti-vaxxers and ‘the snickers who attack science’

Nearly 30 years ago, Baker hired his friend Ambassador EdwardDjerejian as the institute’s first director. Djerejian studied other notable public policy organizations but returned to the Economics 101 class he took at Georgetown to build the foundation for the institute. You can’t imitate Harvard, Stanford and the Woodrow Wilson Center,” Djerejian said in a 2018 interview. What is our comparative advantage?

For the Houston-based organization, energy and medicine become two pillars. Both Baker and Djerejian had worked extensively in the Middle East, so that area also became a tent base.

The scope of research has expanded significantly in 30 years. Today, Satterfield highlights other things the institute’s fellows study: maternal and infant mortality rates; impact of highways on residential areas; impact of concreting (from Satterfields) on flooding; The impact of lithium batteries is heavier, therefore the car is heavier, on the road surface; security of elections; intellectual capital; forced marriage, drug abuse and imprisonment; problems with the Texas power grid

Much of the work is done at the institute located on the Rice University campus that feels especially close to Houston. In an increasingly connected world, even those who are far away feel close. The graduate students at the institute want to think a few steps ahead, but not 250 million years.

In the end, everyone dies, right? Satterfield said. So we must grapple with the issues that affect us today. Those who need the most attention.

A lifetime of service

Satterfield began working with the U.S. Department of State 40 years ago. The Baltimore native has served as U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon and Türkiye, among other positions. He speaks three languages ​​and has sharp diplomatic skills. Every syllable is clearly enunciated and he easily moves from conversational to controlled theatricality to make a point.

Satterfield arrived at Baker Academy just over a year ago, taking over from the retiring Djerejian. Fall 2023, the Baker Institute presents highlights as they have been happening for years: Djerejian once called them the icing on the cake of what we do. Satterfield moderated the conversation earlier this month with Secretary Blinken. On October 26, the Baker Institute will host its 30th anniversary gala with a moderate discussion between three other Secretaries of State: Baker, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Henry Kissinger.

The director knows the value of those events, which attract attention bringing gifts of current use to the institute. Endowment gifts account for nearly 40% of the Baker Institute’s revenue; 46% comes from grants and 14% comes from research grants.

But to actually get Satterfield to offer any subject the institute’s roughly 100 fellows study. He was particularly fascinated by the way the themes intertwine. Satterfield’s diplomatic career in places like Türkiye, Lebanon and Egypt fostered in him a strong sense of connection.

The challenges facing Houston can be seen elsewhere, Satterfield said. The Kinder Houston Area Survey tells us what Houston looks like in the United States today and what it will look like in 20 years. This is the most (pause) interesting (pause) place (pause).

Proposed Solutions

In the moment between the word thought and the word tank, Satterfield’s face wrinkled in displeasure.

We don’t like it,” he said. I do not like it. The meaning of a think tank is some foreign relations council based in New York, with one person writing an insightful article for 199 others in the hopes of improving their CVs and seeking tenure.

I see its value as a shorthand. But I don’t like to think (pause contemptuously). As a public policy institute with important connections to our communities, starting with Houston. We don’t just admire problems. We analyze and propose solutions.

Speaking to some of the Baker Institute’s experts also undermines the insular, echoic caricature of a think tank.

Dr. SandraMcKay, a child health policy fellow at the institute and professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center, quoted former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, an expert on energy and transportation policy who is working on a large-scale study of federal infrastructure.

Ed likes to say there’s a lot of magic that happens in the break room here, she said. You go out for coffee and people start talking.

Dr. Rola El-Serag, an expert in health and biological sciences and an associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said many people in the medical industry work in silos. Here, the platform brings people together, especially because it is non-partisan. Being data-driven, especially when so many people question the science, is more important than ever.

Her research, like the McKays, incorporates the work of those who study economic trends, those who study guns, those who study neighborhoods and communities. Some problems specific to Texas: The state’s love of guns and refusal to expand Medicaid pose problems.

They want to be prescriptive rather than reactive. But they also hope to reduce temperatures in hot subjects.

It’s hard not to have an emotional reaction, but what can we agree on? McKay said. I think everyone can agree that they don’t want to see children killed with guns. So we can start there.

El-Serag views mental health as important to every issue they research. McKay wonders whether something as simple as reducing taxes on gun safes, which can be expensive, could have a positive effect.

She said if you can reduce the number of lives lost then that’s a win.

Ring the alarm

Like Djerejian before him, Satterfield champions the public-facing approach the Baker Institute is taking. He said that a company could give us money to do the research. But the results we get are the results we get. Not a consultation. You don’t hire us to get results.

John Diamond, director of the Center for Public Finance, didn’t like what he saw.

He said that any public finance question we answer about the city of Houston, you should answer with Wellbutrin.

His doomsday scenario for Houston is more financial than it is related to the Suns. And it may come much sooner than the poet predicts.

Two weeks ago, Diamond hinted at an impending tipping point, which he mentioned in an article commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership. (It publishes this week.)

For more than a decade, the city has had a structural budget deficit. Diamond sees recurring costs like raises for fire and police departments covered by American Rescue Plan funds soon running out. Costly repairs to roads, water and wastewater systems are coming due.

Diamond points out that they will be more expensive if postponed. Repairing a road when it is 75% damaged costs nearly eight times more than when it is 40% degraded, he said. The same thing happens with buildings. Water system.

We don’t have to make decisions right now, but every year we wait for those decisions costs us more.

This research and article are not designed as solutions but as a warning bell.

Possible solutions may come next, although Diamond said they won’t always be popular.

That’s the problem with my field of research, he said. All are depressed. Some days I put everything down and feel like the most negative person in the falling sky in the world. But we have to face these problems. We cannot hope to escape this. Some people have to make difficult decisions or get into a lot of trouble. It seems like people no longer want to make difficult choices.

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