American Enterprise Institute
The AEI describes itself as dedicated to “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and
effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability and open debate.”
The AEI does not disclose donors but says that in 2003 it received 36 percent of its funding from individuals, 35 percent from foundations and 23 percent from corporations.
The link on the website to short publications leads to the organization’s briefer research reports and findings; visitors can also find resources classified by research area.
Comments: Its standards for factual accuracy are high, though its reports have a distinctly partisan tilt.
Political Leanings: Pro-business
Brookings is the oldest and one of the best-known of the Washington-based “think tanks,” tracing its origins back to 1916 and founder Robert Somers Brookings, a wealthy St. Louis businessman. Its scholars generally have very strong academic credentials.
Reports from the institute and its scholars can be viewed by research programs, policy centers and research projects. They fall mainly into the categories of competitiveness, education, migration, health care or energy security.
Brookings says it is funded by “foundations, corporations, and individuals, and to a lesser extent by endowment income.”
Comments: Brookings has a well-earned reputation for scholarly excellence. Its reports are, for the most part, clearly written and can be fine guides to understanding how government programs work, or don't work. It has a reputation for leaning slightly to the left.
Political Leanings: Liberal
The Cato Institute describes its work as broadening public-policy debate on “individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” For the last decade, Cato has supported Social Security reform through private accounts and championed deregulation of the drug industry. Cato was founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane, a chartered financial analyst and former vice president of Alliance Capital Management Group. Most of Cato’s funding comes from private foundations and individuals, with only a small amount from corporations.
Cato is thought of as a libertarian think tank, and its scholars tend to argue for free markets and against taxes and government regulation. It also strongly rejects government infringement on individual rights.
Cato’s publications and reports can be explored by research area, which include defense and national security, constitutional issues, and a variety of domestic issues. The institute hosts a separate site focusing on Social Security.
Comments: Cato's research is thorough and well-documented, and advances a libertarian agenda.
Political Leanings: Libertarian
Center for American Progress
Founded in 2003 by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, the Center for American Progress describes itself as “progressive.” Many of its experts once worked in Democratic presidential administrations or for Democrats on Capitol Hill. According to its website, the center seeks to “combine bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate, expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy, and challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter.”
The center's focus covers a wide range of issues, including energy, health care, the economy, civil rights, immigration, welfare and others.
Unlike many think tanks, the center has a lobbying and advocacy offshoot, called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Action Fund describes itself as “the sister advocacy organization of the Center for American Progress.”
Comments: The center's website reflects its strong liberal bent.
Political Leanings: Liberal
Center for Public Integrity
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that publishes investigative journalism projects on issues of public concern. The center’s mission, according to its website, is to “make institutional power more transparent and accountable.”
Its reports, as well as databases it compiles, are available on its site and disseminated to other journalists, as well as policymakers and scholars. The center has tackled projects in such areas as the environment, public health, lobbying and campaign finance. Investigative reports have included: “The Climate Change Lobby,” about the universe of interests seeking to shape the debate on climate change; “Tobacco Underground,” about the illicit trafficking of that substance; “The Transportation Lobby,” about the obstacles to fashioning a coherent transportation policy; and “Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown,” about the banks behind the subprime lenders. Every four years, during a presidential election, the center publishes “The Buying of the President,” an examination of the role of money in the campaign.
The center is funded by foundations. Individuals also contribute, but it doesn’t accept money from labor unions, governments, corporations or anonymous donors.
Comments: The Center for Public Integrity conducts time-consuming, detail-oriented investigative work that requires the kind of resources that many journalists at mainstream media organizations don’t have.
Political Leanings: None
Congressional Research Service
The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the service, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.
The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups, including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.
The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.
Consumer Federation of America
The CFA, formed in 1968, acts on behalf of consumers through “advocacy, research, education, and service.” The group has 300 member
organizations – all nonprofit, pro-consumer groups. The CFA encourages federal and state officials to adopt pro-consumer policies, and it
supports grassroots consumer movements and consumer cooperatives. Its Food Policy Institute advocates for a “safer, healthier and more
affordable food supply.”
The group investigates a range of consumer issues in the areas of communications, energy, finance, food and agriculture, health and safety, and housing. Brochures, studies, fact sheets and testimony before government entities are available online, including material on legislative activity related to the group’s goals as well as ratings of cars based on their fuel economy. It is a voice for consumers generally vis-a-vis insurance companies, banks and credit-rating agencies, among other entities. The majority of the group’s income comes from corporate and private foundation grants. Membership dues and revenue from CFA conferences account for 15 percent of funding.
Comments: The CFA favors increased government regulation of industry, consumer products and the food supply.
Energy Information Administration
The EIA’s main page provides links to up-to-date energy data by source: for example, natural gas production, consumption, imports and exports, wholesale and retail prices. The EIA’s extremely useful This Week in Petroleum feature offers timely information on fuel prices. The site also leads visitors to state and country energy profiles, monthly and annual energy outlooks, greenhouse gas data. Want to know how much petroleum is accessible via offshore drilling? That’s here, too.
The linked “energy kids” site explains different sources of energy and also features lesson plans for teachers.
Comments: The EIA's projections of future energy consumption and costs often provide a "reality check" on what's being said by elected officials and candidates.
Environmental Defense Fund
The Environmental Defense Fund is a nonprofit advocacy group “dedicated to protecting the environmental rights of all people.” It works on issues such as air and water pollution and climate change. Founded in 1967 by a group of scientists who had won a ban on the pesticide DDT, the EDF claims credit for helping get all hunted whales on the U.S. endangered species list and helping push California to enact a state law reducing emissions that contribute to global warming, among other things.
The group’s board of trustees is made up of scientists, economists, business executives, conservationists and philanthropists, and the group says 60 percent of its funding comes from donations or membership and one-third comes from foundations.
The EDF lobbies and produces fact sheets on a number of environmental issues. A unique feature of the EDF is its corporate partnerships, through which the group works with companies on business-friendly environmental innovations. For instance, the EDF established an office in Bentonville, Ark., to work with Wal-Mart on increasing energy efficiency and other projects. The EDF accepts no payment for these efforts.
The EDF has a “Pollution Locator,” searchable by ZIP code or state, which provides information on local and national contamination levels for air, water and toxic waste, in addition to a seafood selector that advises on the best and worst fish to consume from the standpoints of human health and depletion of fisheries.
Comments: The website provides well-documented research on pollution. It tends to favor strict regulatory standards.
Political Leanings: Liberal
Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA was formed in 1970 by President Nixon and Congress as an independent government agency to coordinate and oversee the preservation and protection of the environment. Previously, various environmental programs had been handled by different departments.
The agency’s website contains a wealth of information and is easy to navigate. Visitors can use the Quick Finder to locate material on a particular topic, the Programs page to find out about EPA initiatives, or Laws, Regulations & Dockets for information on legislation. In addition, there is a hub specifically designed for high school students, which includes information on environmental issues and careers, scholarships and awards programs.
Finally, the History page provides links to the agency’s past accomplishments and its annual performance and accountability report, which recaps the year’s programs and finances.
Comments: The EPA's site contains a great deal of useful information on environmental issues, the nation’s laws and EPA initiatives. While the agency’s priorites are often dictated, to a greater or lesser degree, by the occupant of the White House, the EPA is considered by many to be a solid source of information on environmental issues.
According to its website, FactCheck.org is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Its staff monitors factual accuracy in American politics, looking at what’s being said in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and the like.
The website has three main outlets for its work: Articles, the FactCheck Wire (for shorter items or ones of less national interest) and Ask FactCheck (in which the group’s staff members answer questions sent in by readers, often about chain e-mails on political subjects). The group debunks myths, falsehoods and exaggerations by politicians and outside groups involved in election campaigns and public policy debates. Examples of FactCheck.org’s work include stories about misinformation spread during public policy debates such as the one on overhauling the health care system, and inaccurate claims made during election campaigns such as John McCain’s position on Medicare or Barack Obama’s birthplace. The group’s work is often cited by other media organizations.
FactCheck.org is funded by, and is a project of, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which was established by the Annenberg Foundation with a $20 million endowment in 1993. The Annenberg Foundation also made additional grants to support FactCheck.org’s work. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. In 2010, FactCheck.org began accepting donations from individual members of the public. Its does not accept any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.
Political Leanings: None
The Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s best-known think tanks on the right, says its mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a
strong national defense.”
Heritage scholars generally argues for lower taxes, less spending for social programs and less government regulation of business. When Heritage criticizes Republicans it is often for being too liberal: It supported President Bush’s first-term tax cuts, for example, but criticized his expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.
Comments: Facts cited by Heritage are generally solid and well-documented, though quite often they reflect only one side of an ideological debate.
Political Leanings: Strongly conservative
Librarians’ Internet Index
Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.
Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.
Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.
Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leadsto rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.
Political Leanings: None
Minerals Management Service
The Minerals Management Service is the federal agency that “manages the nation’s natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS).” It also manages “more than $8 billion per year in revenues” from both federal offshore and onshore
The agency’s website has a full index of news releases and special reports. For information on, say, the Alaska lease sales schedule or trends in offshore development, this is the place to look. The agency organizes OCS areas into three regions: Alaska, Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Each has its own subsection on the site. While the material in each subsection isn’t uniform, the main categories of information include: statistics on production, maps of currently held leases, and fact sheets about the areas.
The agency also has a separate kids/education section that includes lesson plans for teachers and other classroom resources.
Comments: The site is chock full of information on offshore drilling and energy production. For big-picture statistics, the Energy Information
Administration can be more helpful.
The nonprofit National Academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering — generate and disseminate expert research and judgments on matters of science, including the social sciences. They bill themselves as “advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine.”
The Academies convene panels of experts to address matters of scientific policy. Only top scientists can become members, and that honor includes a duty to serve (for free) on study committees, which discuss “national or international issues involving science, technology, human health, or environmental quality.” Hundreds of these committees meet each year. Study topics are usually requested by the federal government, though state governments and private concerns can also request and fund projects. Committee reports are published by the
National Academies Press and can be searched and read for free online.
The main Academies website features capsule reviews of new and notable reports. In addition to the 200 to 300 reports published each year, the Academies also produce an annual Report to Congress, synthesizing the past year’s research.
While the Academies do not receive direct federal appropriations, about 85 percent of their funding comes from the federal government. The rest comes from state agencies, private sponsors, foundations and the National Academies endowment. A breakdown of funding sources is included in the annual Report to Congress. The Academies aim to keep partisan and personal interests out of their decisions. Sponsors have no control over how studies are conducted or their outcomes, and the committees deliberate in private to minimize
Comments: Academies reports can be dense and difficult for laypeople to read, although full-text searching makes it easier to find relevant pages. The website contains a searchable archive of press releases about the reports that are usually easier to analyze and digest. Academy recommendations are often cautious, even equivocal. Particularly strong statements or strenuous recommendations represent a
significant scientific consensus.
Political Leanings: None
National Center for Policy Analysis
The National Center for Policy Analysis exists, according to its website, “to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation and control, solving problems by relying on the strength of the competitive, entrepreneurial private sector.” Founded in 1981 by John C. Goodman – who describes himself as “the father of medical savings accounts” – NCPA’s board is overwhelmingly made up of corporate executives. Its chairman is Pete du Pont, a Republican former governor of Delaware. About two-thirds of the group’s money comes from private foundations including some of the nation’s biggest conservative donors, among them the Scaife, Lynn and Harry Bradley, Olin, Earhardt, Castle Rock, and Koch foundations, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
The NCPA’s main areas of focus are health care, taxes, retirement, environment and energy and women and small business. The website can be searched by policy issue. Research and articles available on the site under those headings heavily promotes the free-market perspective of the group. Under “taxes and growth,” for example, are reports and articles supportive of supply-side economics and the flat tax.
Comments: Despite its name, which seems to imply even-handed analysis, this group's research tilts sharply in favor of private-sector solutions over government ones.
Political Leanings: Conservative
National Conference of State Legislatures
A bipartisan organization for state, commonwealth and territorial legislators and their staffs, the National Conference of State Legislatures “provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.”
The organization advocates the interests of state governments.
The NCSL’s website contains information about the issues state governments are facing, such as education, environmental protection, transportation, criminal justice and state-tribal relations. Visitors to the site can access various reports, including summaries of which states enacted certain types of legislation on, for example, gambling or immigration. The site also contains information on state elections and election laws.
The “GrassCatcher” page is a daily roundup of state and policy news. Visitors can listen to NCSL’s podcasts and request a personalized daily or weekly e-mail on specified policy topics.
Comments: The website is a good resource for information on the status of state laws on various subjects.
National Governors Association
The National Governors Association was formed in 1908 and represents all 50 state governors as well as those from five U.S. territories. The NGA’s Office of Federal Relations in Washington, D.C., lobbies for policies that reflect the governors’ views, and its Center for Best Practices is a consulting firm that helps governors “develop and implement innovative solutions to public policy challenges.” The Center for Best Practices issues policy reports and writes Front & Center, a weekly newsletter on what the NGA and its governors are doing. It also funds state projects. For instance, it supported 15 states in developing programs to fight childhood obesity. Reports on these projects can be found on the Center’s part of the NGA site.
The public can access information on individual governors and issues of interest to the NGA on the website.
To be part of the NGA, states must pay dues, which help fund the organization’s activities. The Center for Best Practices is financed
primarily through federal and private foundation grants and partially through the NGA’s Corporate Fellows Program, which accepts $20,000 from companies that then act as resources for the center. That program is designed to increase dialogue between the public and private sectors.
Comments: The NGA is bipartisan but writes about issues from the perspective of state governors. It vigorously promotes its members’ proposals and accomplishments.
Natural Resources Defense Council
The NRDC is a pro-environmental protection nonprofit. It works “to protect wildlife and wild places and to ensure a healthy environment for all life on earth,” according to its website.
The website offers information on a number of key environmental issues, including climate change, clean energy, reviving oceans, protecting the Great Lakes from Asian carp, reintroduction of wolves in the western United States and so on. The group also does independent research on environmental policy questions and makes policy recommendations. The affiliated NRDC Action Fund lobbies Congress on issues pertaining to the environment.
The group has a site for younger viewers as well: The Green Squad, which contains tips for kids on making their schools greener.
In 2008, 85 percent of the NRDC’s funding came from membership dues and individual contributions, while just 12 percent came from foundations. For that year, it claimed 1.3 million “members and online activists.”
Comments: The NRDC makes no secret of its pro-environmental protection stance. Reports and fact sheets often contain solid research, but, like materials from other advocacy groups, generally don't include other perspectives.
Political Leanings: Liberal
Pew Research Center
The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that’s a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, calls itself a “fact tank.” It conducts
public opinion polling and social science research, and publishes reports and information on various issues through seven distinct projects:
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press examines public attitudes toward the news media, surveys the demographic makeup
of the American electorate, analyzes public and opinion leaders’ views on international policy, and measures public use of media sources. As with all of the Pew Research Center projects, its surveys are published on the Web site, along with commentary and datasets.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism conducts empirical studies of press coverage, mainly through content analysis. Its annual report on journalism, State of the News Media, is a comprehensive look at American journalism, including trends in the industry, content analyses and the economics of the business.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project researches the impact of the Internet on people, society and various facets of life, such as the work, health care and politics.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life functions as a forum for discussion of religion and public affairs. It publishes polls and reports on subjects such as religious affiliations, bioethics, religion and politics, the death penalty, and religion and social welfare.
The Pew Hispanic Center focuses on eight key subject areas: demography, economics, education, identity, immigration, labor, politics and remittances. It conducts or commissions studies and public opinion surveys on Latino issues and perspectives. Its estimates on the number of illegal immigrants in the United States have been widely cited.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project conducts public opinion polls worldwide on various subjects, including top issues in the news and people’s personal views of their lives. Its surveys have been conducted in 54 countries.
Social & Demographic Trends examines behaviors and attitudes in various areas of American life, such as family, health, work and leisure. Its reports pair public opinion polling with demographic data analysis.
Comments: The center is a good resource for public opinion surveys and detailed studies in its seven project areas.
Political Leanings: None
This independent, nonprofit website lays out the arguments on both sides of a host of controversial issues. Its mission statement: “We promote critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship.”
ProCon.org presents issues such as “Sports and Drugs” or “Death Penalty” by giving a brief overview of the controversy, then framing the key question — “Should performance-enhancing drugs (such as steroids) be accepted in sports?” — and breaking it down into 10 underlying debates — “Athletes as Role Models” and “Sportsmanship,” for instance. Quotes from various sources on each side of the issue help readers understand the main points of contention and what the arguments are in support of each perspective.
The nonpartisan site was founded in 2004 by businessman Steve Markoff and his wife, Jadwiga.
Comments: ProCon.org is unusual in that it provides the arguments on both sides of an issue, along with sources for those who want to follow up further.
Political Leanings: None
Public Citizen is a consumer advocacy group that was founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader, a liberal activist and later a Green Party presidential candidate. The group says it works for “openness and democratic accountability in government, for the right of consumers to seek redress in the courts; for clean, safe and sustainable energy sources; for social and economic justice in trade policies; for strong health, safety and environmental protections; and for safe, effective and affordable prescription drugs and health care.”
The organization has six divisions: Auto Safety, Congress Watch, Energy Program, Global Trade Watch, Health Research Group and Litigation Group. It has been instrumental in a number of high-profile consumer advocacy causes. Public Citizen activists helped in the push to get airbags required in all vehicles, for instance, and the group fought to get Reye’s Syndrome warnings on aspirin bottles. Toy safety has been another area of focus for the group. Its worstpills.org site offers detailed information about pharmaceuticals the group considers unsafe, but full access to this information requires a paid subscription.
The Public Citizen website can be an invaluable source of information on consumer safety issues, and in some areas the group does its own research. Its Center for Auto Safety, for example, developed its own roof crush test for cars.
Public Citizen is pro-consumer and often critical of corporations and government. Don’t expect to see the views of the private sector represented here. The group does not accept donations from corporations, professional associations or government agencies, though it has received contributions from labor unions. In 2008, more than half of its funding came from individual donations, with about one-sixth coming from grants. Public Citizen’s Form 990 tax records are available on its website.
Comments: Public Citizen's research is often thorough and detailed, though the group has an anti-corporate, pro-regulatory point of view.
Political Leanings: Liberal
RAND conducts research on issues that relate to a broad range of public policy matters. The nonprofit corporation has been operating since 1948, when it was primarily concerned with security and defense technology; it has since broadened its areas of research to include health, education, environmental and social policy. RAND is funded primarily by federal, state and local governments, but also undertakes projects on behalf of foundations, universities, charitable organizations and private companies. The bulk of its funding comes from contracts with the U.S. government and military.
RAND has full research reports available for download on its website, along with research briefs and technical papers. The corporation is respected for its research integrity, and its publications are considered serious and authoritative across party and issue lines.
Comments: In addition to research papers and briefs, RAND's website includes an archive of commentary pieces by RAND researchers. It is important to draw a distinction between the organization's research, which is nonpartisan, and these pieces, which represent the opinions of individuals.
Political Leanings: None
Regulations.gov was set up in 2003 to better equip citizens to find, view and comment upon the vast array of federal regulations.
After Congress passes laws, federal agencies are responsible for enforcing them. They use regulations to accomplish that task, spelling out in detail how specific statutes are to be implemented. Each new proposed regulation must go through a notice-and-comment process, meaning that an agency must publicly announce a proposed regulation and then allow citizens the chance to weigh in. Keeping track of these draft rules once was a daunting project, as there are thousands of federal regulatory agencies. Regulations.gov simplifies the process by collecting proposed regulations from each federal agency and offering a forum for submitting comments on them.
The site also catalogs federal regulations, so that anyone wanting to check the wording of rules that were issued to implement, say, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act can find them here.
The site can be searched by keywords, phrases or rule numbers. A short glossary of regulatory terms is provided, as is an extensive user guide. The site also includes an RSS feed that provides up-to-the-minute notice of new federal regulations.
Comments: The basic keyword search is straightforward, but the most powerful search functions require considerable knowledge of the regulatory process. If you know what you are looking for, Regulations.gov offers one-stop shopping. It is less useful for casual browsing and novices.
Resources for the Future
Resources for the Future is a nonprofit environmental research organization that does not take positions or engage in advocacy. It is a good neutral source of information on environmental topics.
Founded in 1952, RFF’s board of directors is a mix of industry leaders, academics, environmental advocates, consultants and legal experts. RFF is widely respected by environmental and industry groups alike for its pragmatic approach to environmental regulation. Its scholars produce comprehensive research on the costs and benefits of policy initiatives – including the effects on both industry and the environment. Congress often relies on RFF’s staff expertise for objective analysis of policy proposals.
RFF says most of its funding comes from donations or grants, with about 25 percent in government grants, 25 percent from corporations, and 15 percent from individuals and philanthropies such as the Ford, Mellon and Rockefeller Foundations and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Additional revenue comes from long-term investments and publication sales.
Visitors can find RFF’s research sorted by knowledge area or research topic.
Comments: RFF is nonpartisan. Its papers and reports are technical and dense and make for difficult reading.
Political Leanings: None
U.S. PIRG is the umbrella group and national advocate for 25 state Public Interest Research Groups. The citizen-funded state PIRGs work on a wide range of consumer rights issues in 47 states and Washington, D.C. On its website, U.S. PIRG says it “stand[s] up to powerful special interests on issues to promote clean air and water, protect open space, stop identity theft, fight political corruption, provide safe and affordable prescription drugs, and strengthen voting rights.”
In addition to the state PIRG offices, there are student PIRGs that work on public interest issues at about 100 colleges and universities. Some of the first student PIRGs, established in the 1970s, were inspired by progressive activists Ralph Nader, Donald Ross and others. U.S. PIRG was founded by the state PIRG offices in 1983. In 2008 it received roughly the same amount from individual contributions as it did from grants from foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, and the Media Democracy Fund. The group’s annual reports are available on its website.
The organization publishes investigative reports, drafts model legislation, and uses litigation and grassroots advocacy efforts to influence public policy. It publishes lengthy reports on topics ranging from pollution and global warming to risks of genetically engineered foods to campaign finance reform. U.S. PIRG releases an annual toy safety report, which it says has led to more than 100 product recalls, and issues an annual “Congressional Scorecard,” which lists votes on certain legislation in the Congress and awards a public interest “score” to each member.
U.S. PIRG also boasts of successes in blocking or pushing federal and state action on environmental issues. In its work, it often partners with other consumer and environmental organizations, such as the Consumer Federation of America and the Sierra Club.
U.S. PIRG's reports are detailed and often contain discussions of the science involved in an issue. They reflect the group’s anti-corporate leanings, so aren’t likely to include the perspective of the business community.
Political Leanings: Liberal
The United Nations’ website contains a huge amount of information that dates back to the global governing body’s inception in 1945. From the U.N. home page there are links to several of its divisions and programs; unfortunately, due to the website’s outdated layout, it can be
difficult to navigate.
For research purposes, a long listing of links to U.N.-supported sites, from UNICEF to the U.N. Volunteer Program, can be found at the site index page. Also, visitors can search the U.N.’s statistical database, which contains statistics on member countries and economic issues, and the U.N. documents database, which holds U.N. documents such as official letters, releases and resolutions dating back to 1993. (The site says it will add documents dating back to the 1940s.) The site also has a U.N. “cyber school” page, which aims to teach children about U.N. countries and developments.
Comments: While it’s not particularly user-friendly at first, the U.N. site has plenty of valuable content, from its statistics databases to the many U.N. program sites.
USA.gov calls itself “the official U.S. gateway to all government information.” The U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications oversees the website, which offers a library of links to government agencies, information about particular laws and regulations, and data and statistics. Visitors can get pertinent links classified by topic and access links to state and local governments as well.
Comments: USA.gov can be a good place to begin for researchers who are unsure of where to look first.
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.
Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”
The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.
Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”
Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”
Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.
Political Leanings: None