States as Laboratories for Science Policy Innovation

As California’s environmental initiatives demonstrate, states can complement the federal role in generating science-informed legislation that addresses local problems while providing a model for national and international policies.

In 1932 Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis first popularized the idea of states as laboratories for policy innovation and experimentation. In his dissent in the case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Brandeis wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” This policy experimentation can generate effects that extend far beyond state borders, and in the case of science policy, it can deliver tangible results that are purposely customized to fit local needs.

Today the urgency of climate change, combined with intensified partisanship and gridlock in US federal policymaking, elevates the importance of states as laboratories of democracy. Through policy experimentation and investments in research and development, states complement the federal role in generating science-informed policies that benefit the nation and the world, meeting needs for public services that national governments typically cannot address, and providing visible evidence of the value of public institutions in the daily lives of their residents. In addition, as federal science priorities and funding levels have waxed and waned, states have taken more prominent roles in setting research agendas that generate long-term social benefits.

As leaders of the California Council on Science and Technology, a state organization that provides scientific advice to policymakers, we relate here how scientists and policymakers have worked together in our state to create the type of civic and political environment from which innovative science-based programs can take root and spread. Our track record in this endeavor also demonstrates why building science policy at state as well as federal levels increases the chances for future success.

States as pathfinders

California has long been a leader in developing science-based policies with environmental aims. Although other states, territorial and local governments, and tribal nations have been pathfinders in addressing issues such as air pollution, energy use, and climate change, and in building resilience into public services and policies, they have not achieved California’s impacts. As the world’s 5th-largest economy and 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, California is comparable to a nation-state and thus its actions have far-reaching consequences.

Through policy experimentation and investments in research and development, states complement the federal role in generating science-informed policies that benefit the nation and the world.

What’s more, California’s long history of effective action on the environment has built a reservoir of public trust in science-based solutions. In particular, this enabled state leaders to mobilize the political will needed to pass pioneering climate legislation in 2006, which has been followed by other ambitious legislation.

Among the state’s early environmental problems were vehicle emissions and tailpipe pollution. Smog in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles was so bad that schoolchildren were not allowed to play outside at recess during the frequent smog alerts. The combination of the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, state emissions regulations that exceeded federal standards in their stringency, and regional air quality monitoring led to a significant reduction of LA’s smog while generating new commercial opportunities within an expanding green economy. The fact that the state was able to deliver noticeably cleaner air without hurting the economy helped to build a sense of trust among the general populace that environmental initiatives could deliver multiple benefits. As of 2021, 14 other states and the District of Colombia had adopted California’s emissions standards, which remain more stringent than federal standards.

Similarly, California adopted energy efficiency measures in the 1970s that kept its per capita energy use flat for more than four decades while per capita consumption rose steadily across the nation. As Art Rosenberg, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explained to then Governor Jerry Brown, the state could significantly reduce per capita energy use if it could find a way to make refrigerators and other appliances more energy efficient. He also suggested changing specific utility incentives. Once his suggestions proved successful, the so-called Rosenberg Effect became part of the state regulatory effort, which has vastly improved the energy efficiency of homes, appliances, vehicles, and other energy-consuming products in California over the past 50 years.

Building on these successes, in 2006 California became the first state in the United States to adopt a comprehensive climate program. Assembly Bill (AB) 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, required the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Most notably this legislation and its attendant regulations were built on research done by scientists, economists, and sociologists at California universities. Indeed, the carefully designed local effort helped California meet the goal of AB 32 four years early, in 2016. Lawmakers followed up that success with Senate Bill 100, the California 100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2018, which mandates that all of the state’s electricity production be carbon neutral by 2040. While popular support has been mixed and largely divided along political lines, several statewide referendums have supported the moves, reflecting a broad public perception that these efforts are good for both the economy and communities.

California adopted energy efficiency measures in the 1970s that kept its per capita energy use flat for more than four decades while per capita consumption rose steadily across the nation.

These legislative successes did not happen in a vacuum. California has been the vanguard for effective climate action in large measure because of its deliberate focus on connecting science and policy with the investments to match. In addition to taking action on climate, for example, California voters have twice authorized major investments in stem cell research in 2004 and 2020.

More broadly, the state has invested in building a science and technology infrastructure that has enabled it to be a global leader in innovation and productivity. These achievements would not have been possible without the confluence of multiple factors. Among them: the creation of public university systems that have produced a well educated workforce by increasing access to higher education for every resident regardless of economic status; the implementation of research and development funding that exceeds that of most of the world’s advanced economies; and a population of extraordinary diversity in race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and lived experience. The result: California’s policies have enabled industries in key sectors—including aerospace, biotechnology, energy, and software—to move quickly, generating tremendous revenue and social mobility.

Building bridges

Of course having the necessary infrastructure does not, by itself, guarantee the meaningful adoption and implementation of science-based policies. Deliberate efforts to ensure substantive communication and collaboration between the scientific community and government officials are also required. Recognizing this need, a coalition of policymakers and leaders of scientific research institutions came together in 1988 to create the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST).

California has been the vanguard for effective climate action in large measure because of its deliberate focus on connecting science and policy with the investments to match.

A state-level organization, CCST was established to provide scientific advice on public policy issues to the governor, the legislature, and other civic entities. Each year CCST embeds 15 PhD-level scientists and engineers as fellows in legislative and executive branch offices. The CCST science and technology policy fellows support policymaking while gaining experience in policy and leadership. The fellowship is a public-private partnership supported by the government of California, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and other philanthropists.

Part of what makes CCST so effective is that it acts as a “boundary organization,” a term coined by political scientist David Guston. Boundary organizations convene and draw expertise from universities and nonprofit research institutions, the private sector, and government agencies to solve problems in ways that none of these organizations is capable of doing on its own. Distinct from lobbying or policymaking organizations in character, boundary organizations avoid advocating for specific political positions, agendas, or outcomes. Policymakers have many routes for accessing scientific advice, ranging from experts on staff, science advisors, investments in research and development, science-based fellowships, and partnerships with universities and national research laboratories that enable access to the state’s deep bench of technical experts.

As an example of the benefits of embedding scientific expertise in government institutions, consider Tony Marino’s work to reduce the risk of public utility accidents. As a CCST science fellow assigned to the California State Legislature, Marino led an analysis of the horrific 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that killed 8 people, injured 58, and destroyed 38 homes in a fire that burned for more than 17 hours. Following his fellowship, Marino remained on the legislative staff to continue work that uncovered gaps in public utility operating procedures, including poor construction and inspection practices as well as shortfalls in recordkeeping. His work led to the promulgation of new legislation that, unlike previous laws, strengthened the accountability of utility companies for safety procedures. This more careful approach is likely to improve public safety and disaster response by increasing transparency and accountability in public utility operations and infrastructure maintenance.

Boundary organizations convene and draw expertise from universities and nonprofit research institutions, the private sector, and government agencies to solve problems in ways that none of these organizations is capable of doing on its own.

Marino’s fellowship experience reflects one way that boundary organizations such as CCST can deliver societal value by training professionals to work at the nexus of policy and science, leading to enhanced communication between policymakers and technical experts. His subsequent impact demonstrates how these advantages are not limited to the fellowship year. Most of CCST’s 130-plus alumni fellows continue to work in roles related to state policy, drawing on their experience in government to develop solutions that are not just science-based but also politically feasible. CCST is also working with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and other philanthropic partners to export the CCST fellowship program model to other states, eight of which have created similar programs. An additional 12 states have programs in various stages of development.

Planning ahead for a crisis

When crises strike, the activation of existing partnerships, together with engagement by boundary organizations, can facilitate collaboration at the speed of relevance. To enable this, governments, civil society, and the private sector need to build partnerships before disaster strikes. Partners should train together in tabletop exercises. These discussion-based scenarios can identify and address in advance any cultural, regulatory, or other constraints that could hamper rapid activation of a collaborative response. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, for example, many California-based colleges, universities, and federal laboratories transformed their facilities to support diagnostic testing and to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE). Despite urgent, widespread needs and critical shortfalls in testing and PPE, however, these same institutions struggled to secure required permissions to deliver support to local and state authorities. These potential roadblocks could have largely been foreseen.

Climate change, pandemics, and—in California—earthquakes, are well-known risks that allow for somewhat straightforward planning, even if preparation is increasingly complicated by their simultaneous intersection with other crises such as financial meltdowns, acts of terrorism, and war. But what about the problems with which society has only limited experience or that have not yet developed? Emerging and disruptive technologies, such as cyberattacks that disable critical infrastructure or perpetuate disinformation, increasingly present threats and vulnerabilities for the government, defense, and private sectors that should be considered in resilience planning.

To this end, in 2020 CCST began a new partnership with the California government, philanthropists, and academic research institutions to strengthen the state’s disaster resilience. Among the goals are developing new mechanisms for rapidly delivering independent, evidence-based advice and framing transdisciplinary solutions to emergent and over-the-horizon policy issues related to disasters. This work is intended to strengthen science and policy linkages before there is a need, thus enabling effective and inclusive resilience planning and timely collaboration in support of crisis response.

The biggest barrier is not lack of knowledge

Long-term policy planning that drives transdisciplinary and multisectoral solutions, targets actionable early interventions, and generates equitable societal impacts is crucial to driving and sustaining complex policy agendas. Rather than a lack of science and technical knowledge, however, the greatest barriers to implementing effective solutions to complex policy problems have often proved to be competing political objectives, economic disincentives, cognitive biases, and cultural values.

Emerging and disruptive technologies increasingly present threats and vulnerabilities for the government, defense, and private sectors that should be considered in resilience planning.

California’s experience with wildfires illustrates the profound influence cultural values can have on environmental policies. Prior to European settlement, the land management practices of California’s Indigenous peoples included the routine, deliberate application of fire to steward the land and maintain ecosystem processes. In contrast to Indigenous communities that had coevolved with fire, European settlers viewed fire as a threat and instituted fire suppression policies. While effective in the short-term, fire suppression policies are ecologically unsustainable.

California’s recent catastrophic wildfires are in part the direct result of conditions created by 130 years of fire suppression policies. These policies have remained in place in spite of decades of calls by Indigenous communities, forest managers, and ecologists for changes in forest management and land use. These needed changes include vast increases in deliberate and targeted burning to restore lower-intensity fire regimes in California wildlands. To date, political will has been insufficient to invest in and deploy these critical interventions at the scale required, in large part because of mainstream cultural perceptions of fire as inherently harmful. Today cultural perceptions of fire are changing, in part because megafires have negatively affected every Californian and raised awareness of the shortfalls of fire suppression policies. Smoke exposure from wildfires is now a statewide and regional issue, as well as the primary source of wildfire-related mortality. Today wildfires—through smoke exposure—kill more people in cities than in areas that actually burn.

Although the full costs of wildfires to human health cannot be calculated, we know enough as a society to make changes in policy that could save lives and taxpayer dollars. CCST’s 2020 report The Costs of Wildfire in California showed that many costs of wildfires (including impacts to human health and ecosystem services) are not fully counted. Yet even the subset of wildfire costs that are known have exceeded tens of billions of dollars annually in recent years. A growing body of research finds prevention and mitigation to be cost-effective, strengthening the case for investing more in holistic wildfire strategies that allow ecologically beneficial fires back on the land. As policymakers grapple with how much to invest in prevention and mitigation, this kind of independent advice, synthesized from multiple disciplines, is key to informing policy discussions.

Unmet opportunities

Despite California’s robust economy, its benefits have eluded many who live there. Trends in technology and automation, together with the COVID-19 pandemic, have disrupted the workforce and widened the gap between those who have access to the higher wage jobs that technological innovation delivers and those who do not. Meeting society’s most pressing challenges in ways that broaden economic opportunity will require engaging the full range of talent in our society. California and other states should continue to prioritize building a workforce that is more diverse—one that resembles the general population—in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine.

A growing body of research finds prevention and mitigation to be cost-effective, strengthening the case for investing more in holistic wildfire strategies that allow ecologically beneficial fires back on the land.

States are particularly well-placed to develop a more diverse workforce and to seed investments in specific regions that lag in growth. California could, for example, increase investments to accelerate the transformation of Southern California’s Imperial Valley into the “Lithium Valley.” Such an initiative would promote growth in the renewable energy sector, creating jobs in an area with a majority Latino population that has historically experienced high unemployment rates. Focused investments would also build the foundation of a market that could increase US competitiveness in a battery industry that is currently dominated by China.

Of course, mining lithium deposits—found in the Imperial Valley’s Salton Sea—raises questions of social equity and environmental justice tied to the health and well-being of local residents and workers. Integrating such questions of social equity in the development of public policies has become routine in many states, including California. Engagement with local communities to address these questions to inform public policies can have the added benefit of enhancing the social power of historically marginalized populations who are most affected by climate change and other environmental stressors.

Looking ahead to the next 75 years

The next 75 years will challenge humankind in ways impossible to predict today. Regardless of how the coming decades unfold, global challenges—including climate change, pandemics, and other complex shocks—are likely to manifest more frequently and acutely, requiring national and subnational governments to build ever greater resilience in public policies and services. At the same time, geopolitical power shifts and a hyperconnected and increasingly polluted information environment are likely to magnify ongoing social and environmental challenges.

Will the coming decades usher in a resurgence of open democracies or the expansion of authoritarianism? Against a range of potential future scenarios, emerging technologies are likely to magnify tensions, disruptions, and global competition for technological superiority.

Meeting society’s most pressing challenges in ways that broaden economic opportunity will require engaging the full range of talent in our society.

The future success of humankind requires embracing global interconnectedness and harnessing the best social, technological, and policy innovations, regardless of where they are created. Global society’s well-being relies on the generation of innovative and effective policy solutions. California’s highly experimental approach to policymaking and rulemaking, coupled with its flexible and adaptive implementation, has enabled state leadership to respond by making improvements, such as “greening the grid.” Future policymaking and rulemaking in an increasingly uncertain world is likely to require even greater experimentation, flexibility, and adaptation.

Against this backdrop, the effects of state-level actions in democracies provide strong counterpoints to arguments for autocratic models. California is investing heavily in building climate resilience, including with a $15 billion package approved in 2021 to build resilience and protect communities from climate risks such as catastrophic wildfire, extreme heat, and sea level rise. As of 2021, 30 states in the United States, together with the District of Colombia and Puerto Rico, had set goals of at least a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or the generation of at least 75% of electricity production from renewable or combined renewable and clean energy sources. Additionally, more than 50 tribal nations in the United States have completed climate assessments and action plans.

Generating solutions to society’s most complex problems will require expanded collaboration among state, territorial, local, and tribal governments; philanthropy; other segments of civil society; and the private sector. It will require greater investments in the boundary organizations that catalyze these collaborations. Progress in science-informed policy will also be contingent on repairing trust in science and in public institutions—a vast topic but one we recognize and highlight as vital to the preservation of democracy.

States have served as the laboratories of democracy for the first 246 years of the political experiment known as the United States of America. As the country looks to an increasingly uncertain future, states’ bold policy innovations and experimentation will play a vital role in meeting the needs of their denizens, the nation, and the world.

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Cite this Article

Mace, Amber, and Jun Bando. “States as Laboratories for Science Policy Innovation.” Issues in Science and Technology (January 25, 2021).