Thomson at Twenty

Insights from the President of RAND

James A. Thomson has been president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation since 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, pro-democracy protests filled Tiananmen Square, and the Exxon Valdez spilled oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Prior to joining RAND in 1981, Thomson was on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House and the staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Earlier in his career, he conducted research in experimental nuclear physics after earning his doctorate in physics from Purdue University. To commemorate his 20 years as president, RAND Review interviewed Thomson, asking him to reflect upon his major accomplishments, disappointments, imminent challenges, and foremost hopes for RAND.

James Thomson speaks at the opening of a RAND Europe office in Brussels, Belgium, in 2008.
James Thomson, president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation for the past 20 years, speaks at the opening of a RAND Europe office in Brussels, Belgium, on October 1, 2008.

RAND REVIEW: Your first meeting with the RAND board of trustees occurred the day the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. What did you tell the trustees?

JAMES A. THOMSON: Well, I said I saw it coming but didn’t think it would happen that fast! It seemed as though half the research we presented that day was immediately obsolete. We had to restructure our research agendas for our Department of Defense clients to help them adjust to the new world. We did that. I’m proud that our relations with these clients are today stronger than ever. We are working on their core challenges and helping them make sound decisions.

RR: The world is a different place than it was 20 years ago. How has RAND adapted?

JAT: I’m proud of the way we’ve handled moments of important changes, like our handling of the end of the Cold War. Not only did we have to restructure our work for our defense clients, we had to move beyond that. We did it by building up our health research, which is probably ten times bigger now than it was then. We opened another office in Europe. We took on new work in science and technology. We built up our education unit. Then in the mid-1990s, as our defense funding kept shrinking, we had to strengthen our domestic work further. We simply couldn’t tolerate financially weak activities. We asked each of our research units to strengthen the bottom line, and we did what most other nonprofits had been doing for a long time: We started raising money from philanthropists. There’s no question about it being the right move. We thought some of our domestic units wouldn’t survive. But they did. All of them have proven to be resourceful.

RR: What else have been among your proudest accomplishments over the past 20 years?

JAT: Two things stand out. One, we’ve internationalized RAND. And two, we’re getting better and better at making a difference.

More and more of our work comes from clients outside the United States. International work now accounts for about 10 percent of our revenue. Related to that is the internationalization of our research staff. We now have 40 nationalities working at RAND, counting RAND Europe and our graduate school, which are both quite international. Not counting those traveling from RAND Europe, last year there were 302 researchers from RAND visiting 77 countries. Most important of all, our international growth has been fueled not by our traditional expertise in international security but by our work on domestic policy issues in countries around the world.

As for making a difference, we developed a mission statement in the early 1990s: to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. It’s about results, not research for the sake of research. We’re much more practical than we were 20 years ago. Back then, too many people thought our mission was just to do research, not to do research for a purpose. That is the key distinction. Today, we do research to support a mission.

RR: What are some recent examples of the research making a difference?

JAT: Our recommendations for managing pandemic flu have been adopted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of their response to the H1N1 flu. Our work in comparing health care reform models has informed the national debate with a rare dispassionate analysis. Just the other day, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech on post-traumatic stress disorder, saying the Pentagon’s attempts to address the problem built on our study on the invisible wounds of war. We’ve also saved the United States $1 billion since the beginning of the Iraq war because of the changes we proposed in the way the army stocks its spare parts in that country. You ask if we have an effect? I’d say $1 billion of taxpayer money saved is a pretty good effect.

RR: What have been your greatest disappointments or frustrations?

“What sets us apart from other research institutions is that we have deep client relationships, sometimes long-term relationships that allow us to integrate with the clients and to see their problems over time, so they believe us when we say we have a way to fix their problems.”

JAT: There are two big issues. One is that when I took over, I wanted to put at least some of our domestic policy research on the same kind of financial and substantive footing that we have with the defense agencies, working closely with the clients for long periods of time as an FFRDC [federally funded research and development center]. What sets us apart from other research institutions is that we have deep client relationships, sometimes long-term relationships that allow us to integrate with the clients and to see their problems over time, so they believe us when we say we have a way to fix their problems.

But I was naïve to think we could develop this type of strategic relationship with a domestic policy department within the U.S. government. Nobody has been able to do this. Most domestic departments lack an internal analytical arm, and if they have one, it lacks bureaucratic power. In some cases, this analytical arm is known as an Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation. It would be the job of this office to ask tough questions about priorities and effectiveness, which can lead to improved policies, programs, and budgets. A place like RAND should have a long-term working relationship with that kind of office in several domestic agencies to help them fulfill their missions. This kind of arrangement is also good for the research, because it makes it possible to hire top-notch researchers for the duration by offering them the certainty that there will be a demand for their services.

James Thomson moderates a discussion on bridging the Atlantic divide between the United States and the European Union.
James Thomson moderates a discussion on “bridging the Atlantic divide” between the United States and the European Union. The discussion was held with former ambassadors who gathered at the RAND Corporation headquarters in Santa Monica, California, on November 9, 2009.

The second disappointment is that we continue to grapple with a dated public image of the RAND Corporation as a defense organization only, even though we’ve done work on domestic policy issues since 1965 or earlier. Even though half our work today is on domestic issues and it’s been like that for a long time.

RR: What are the biggest challenges that you see lying ahead?

JAT: The polarized nature of the political debate in the United States makes you worry about the space for nonpartisan objective analysis. Or if we in this country don’t care about that anymore. My response to that is people do care; it’s the politicians who are polarized, not the people. This creates an opportunity for us, because few organizations are occupying that nonpartisan space.

The other challenge is the tendency in Washington to inhibit the publication of research results. It’s been a growing tendency among domestic agencies. Obviously, we don’t publish everything. We have to protect sensitive information and be trusted private advisers. On the other hand, we’re dedicated to the public, and the public trust in the independence of our work could be harmed in the long run if our results could be suppressed. That’s why we don’t sign contracts that restrict our publications. This narrows our opportunities to carve out a nonpartisan space. But we’re in a period of change now with a new administration. Will there be a change in attitude of openness toward policy research? We’ll see.

RR: What are your biggest hopes for the future of RAND over the next 20 years?

JAT: I hope we will extend the impact of our work into new areas. The big, emerging issues — climate change, health care reform — play to our strengths. We have little to say about the science of climate change but lots to say about the policy: mitigation, adaptation, payoffs, trade-offs, and cost-effectiveness. We have a lot to offer in fields like energy supply, the energy grid, and transportation. Nuclear weapons are back on the agenda in a way that governments don’t completely understand. There’s a lot for us to do.

But the scope for analysis in the policy process has been declining since around 1980, more in the domestic agencies than in the Pentagon. Here’s the story of domestic policy research in a nutshell: Starting in the late 1960s under President Johnson and then in the early 1970s under President Nixon, domestic agencies adopted the PPBS [planning, programming, and budgeting system] and created analytical systems akin to those in the Pentagon. Through contracts with those domestic offices, RAND created its domestic research divisions. But those offices began to weaken during the Carter administration. And when President Reagan came in, those contracts shriveled. There was a brief era of analytical research in support of the missions of domestic agencies. And then it never came back.

“My dream would be the creation of a domestic FFRDC comparable to the defense ones.”

We’ve managed to build a vibrant domestic policy analysis capability anyway. But it could be much stronger. My dream would be the creation of a domestic FFRDC comparable to the defense ones, where we could work for the domestic agencies and assist them in reaching their missions — where they don’t send us money to do research, but to do research to support their missions.

RR: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about your job so far?

JAT: I think it’s essential that anybody in this job stay close to the research and the people who do it. That’s what this place is all about. It is very hard to do, however. My calendar is very different from when I took over in 1989. It is packed. Now, there are several advisory boards and a whole set of fundraising functions, because we need to get more people involved with RAND to have a broader reach. Because of our greater international work, it’s also important that the president of the institution appear outside the United States. This all puts a squeeze on my time, but I’ve been lucky to have excellent help from RAND’s executive vice president Michael Rich. He’s made it possible for me (and him) to keep up with the research. We jam into the calendar regular updates throughout the year about significant work in progress, sitting in on practice sessions of our briefings for policymakers — so that I’m involved in the substance inside and can represent RAND outside. I have the substance force-fed to me through all these advisory board meetings and progress reports. My schedule is now what keeps me informed. This is the candy store for me. square