2021 Annual Report



Presidential Research Priorities Drive Impact on Critical Issues

Brookings President John R. Allen established the Presidential Research Priorities to bring the breadth and depth of the Institution’s expertise to a set of challenges whose size and scope require a large-scale, multidisciplinary effort.

Each of the four Priorities—Race, Justice, and Equity; Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology; the Future of the Global Middle Class; and American Leadership in the 21st Century—draws on the full range of Brookings’s strengths in cutting-edge, independent research and unparalleled convening power. Support for the Presidential Research Priorities comes from the generous contributions of Brookings donors and allocations from the President’s Special Initiatives Fund.

Race, Justice, and Equity

Brookings’s newest Presidential Research Priority was launched in 2020 amid the national reckoning over race galvanized by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans. As the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests brought renewed attention to the mutually reinforcing crises of economic inequality, inequities in criminal justice, and persistent, structural racism and bias, Brookings scholars are developing policy solutions to address both the root causes and the consequences.

Research by Senior Fellows Rashawn Ray, Camille Busette, director of the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative at Brookings, and Fellow Makada Henry-Nickie focused on the much higher rates of unemployment among African American men compared to their white or Latino peers, a key contributing factor in many of the downstream challenges facing African American families. Their analyses found little geographic deviation from these trends and a distinct lack of policy measures to address them. The next phases of this work will seek to identify global best practices and the potential and complexities of efforts to incentivize better employment outcomes, and to develop a set of actionable policy recommendations.

Senior Fellow Andre Perry’s research on Black-owned housing and businesses has mobilized a new generation of leaders around an action-oriented agenda to embrace the assets critical to wealth creation and growth in Black communities across the U.S. Perry’s conversations with Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) led to the introduction of the Social and Economic Equity Promotion Act, a bill requiring analysis from the Congressional Budget Office of how legislative proposals would impact historically underserved communities, including communities of color and others that have experienced longstanding social and economic inequality.

Senior Fellow Rashawn Ray’s work focuses on criminal justice and police reform and the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on Black and Latino Americans. Along with Brent Orrell of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he co-led the Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform, which published A Better Path Forward, a report outlining sustained, bi-partisan reforms to move the criminal justice system toward a more humane and effective footing. He also partnered with racial justice organization New Detroit to examine COVID-19 racial disparities in the city. In a presentation to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 Task Force, he offered policy recommendations to improve health outcomes in communities of color. Ray’s current work on police reform includes an assessment of changes to policies regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability at the state and municipal level.

As director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Senior Fellow Nicol Turner Lee leads research on digital inequities and racial discrimination in autonomous systems. Her work on the digital divide focuses on how the lack of broadband contributes to the existing systemic racial inequalities impacting Black Americans and other people of color. Turner Lee has also presented her ongoing work on algorithmic bias to government, industry, and civil society organizations, including headlining a conference on K–12 digital access for the U.S. Department of Education and presenting a framework for racial equity in antitrust for the American Bar Association. She also published on the need to ensure racial equity in the forthcoming infrastructure workforce in the U.S. through her Tech New Deal.

Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative

Under the leadership of President John R. Allen and Director of Research Chris Meserole, the Brookings Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative (AIET) has emerged as the premier high-impact platform for research and convening on AI and emerging technology policy. Only two years after the Initiative’s launch, Brookings was ranked as the #1 think tank for AI policy and strategy by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program. 

The experts leading the Initiative’s AI Governance testified before the House Budget Committee, Energy and Commerce Committee and the Trade Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. Vice President and Director of Governance Studies Darrell West and Brookings President John R. Allen co-authored Turning Point: Policymaking in the Era of Artificial Intelligence, which highlights opportunities and risks posed by artificial intelligence and how near-term policy decisions could determine whether the technology leads to utopia or dystopia. Through papers and the TechTank blog and podcast series, Brookings experts examined key challenges around privacy, financial services, disinformation and social media, and cybersecurity. A new workstream on AI Regulation seeks to bridge the gap between the pace of change in technology and in regulation with commissioned papers and a new fireside chat series.

Brookings’s AI Bias workstream examined the incorporation of algorithms and automation into important decision-making pipelines related to employment, credit, housing, and criminal justice in order to identify examples of racial and gender bias, as well as ways to mitigate them. This work included commissioned papers on bias in natural language processing and in criminal justice applications of AI and events on aspects of responsible AI and systemic racial inequality in AI.

Brookings research also laid the foundation for the “AI Hubs” proposal in the pending United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) legislation and informed the recent White House plan for investing in domestic semiconductor manufacturing capacity. Work by Brookings Metro included an initiative to engage community leaders to benchmark Louisville, Kentucky’s AI readiness and how it can position itself to succeed in the artificial intelligence era, which can be a model for other midsize cities.

Brookings AIET experts on AI and National Security focused on responsible development and deployment of AI in the national security context. John R. Allen published Future War and the Defence of Europe, which makes the case for innovative strategic public-private partnerships and lays out a vision for a technology-enabling defense that safeguards Europe’s future. Brookings scholars red-teamed the reports and recommendations of the congressionally mandated National Security Commission on artificial intelligence.

AIET also expanded its global reach. The Trustworthy AI workstream, initially a Track 1.5 dialogue focused on greater cooperation on AI policy between the United States and EU, and now known as the Forum for Cooperation on AI (FCAI), has extended its scope to include officials and experts from Asia and Australia. The FCAI has been so impactful that senior representatives from the European Commission refer to FCAI and its AI Dialogues as part of their international engagement strategy on AI.

The Brookings-led U.S.-China Dialogue on AI Security has helped to lower concerns in Beijing and Washington about an “AI Arms Race,” with Brookings’s Chinese counterparts publicly recognizing both the limitations of modern AI and the risks posed by AI-enabled military applications. Brookings also convened the High-Level Transatlantic Working Group on Disinformation and Emerging Technology, which brought together leading government officials, researchers, and technologists from North America and Europe to address the threat of coordinated disinformation campaigns targeting democratic societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Looking ahead, the Initiative has launched the Brookings Global Forum on Democracy and Technology. Led by Brookings President John R. Allen, the Global Forum will consist of nine new workstreams on key questions of global technology policy, as well as both a major public virtual event and a High-Level Dialogue in late 2021.

Future of the Global Middle Class

Even before COVID-19 brought ordinary life to a sudden halt in early 2020, the American middle class was facing severe challenges of rising income inequality, geographic disparities, racial differences, and access to quality education, health care, and affordable housing. The pandemic exacerbated these challenges and widened the gulf between those who did the essential, in-person work that enabled so many white collar workers to shift to remote work. Even as pandemic-driven restrictions ease in many places, the stark divisions by race, social class, and economic status remain, and mobility remains difficult. Brookings experts are working to understand the barriers and develop policies to improve the quality of America’s middle class and raise the number of people rising to join its ranks.

The Future of the Middle Class Initiative, which launched a new interactive presence on the Brookings website, uses data and stories from around the country to assess the current well-being of the middle class and to offer real policy solutions that look towards the future. The centerpiece of the Initiative this year was the release of A New Contract with the Middle Class, by Senior Fellows Isabel Sawhill and Richard Reeves, director of the Initiative and co-director of the Center on Children and Families. The Contract, which outlines a pathway to a better future for individuals willing to work and contribute, is rooted in the three key principles of partnership that balances personal responsibility with support, prevention that avoids the costs and consequences of earlier failures, and pluralism of opinions, approaches, and goals.

As part of this effort, Reeves and Sawhill examine five core ingredients in a good quality of life—money, time, relationships, health, and respect—and sketch policy ideas to make them more universally accessible. The Initiative’s Middle Class Monitor provides data across 12 metrics within these five domains that answer the overarching question of how the middle class is faring. Going beyond the data, Voices of the Middle Class tells the larger story of everyday life for these Americans. Scholars across Brookings, along with outside experts, contribute their work on factors that both inhibit and promote the economic mobility of the middle class through the Middle Class Memos. This year’s Memos looked at tax policies affecting the middle class, racial disparities in employment, the gender gap in high school graduation, and the impacts of the pandemic across a range of measures.

Internationally, the growth of the Chinese middle class has important implications for the global middle class. In a report for Brookings’s Global China initiative, Senior Fellow Homi Kharas explores questions of the impact of this growth on the planet and potential implications for global politics, including democracy. The report concludes that the sheer size of the Chinese middle class suggests that it will have an enduring influence on consumer, employment, and political preferences. Senior Fellow and Director of the John L. Thornton China Center Cheng Li published Middle Class Shanghai, an examination of the dynamism and diversity of contemporary Chinese society and its potential impact on U.S.-China engagement.

American Leadership in the 21st Century

American Leadership in the 21st Century focuses first and foremost on how the United States engages with the world through the shared values that are at the nation’s core. Brookings’s research and convening supports human rights, the rule of law, and the global community of democracies, all of which are essential to a peaceful world of shared prosperity. Following a period of increasingly frayed international alliances and straying from global norms, national leaders are renewing efforts to reinvigorate relationships and restore the rules-based international order. Even in the absence of leadership at the national level, policymakers, civil society, and the private sector have been working at the state and local level to advance American leadership through their own interactions with global actors.

There is no shortage of areas where American leadership can contribute to positive global outcomes, from the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals to climate change to U.S.-China technology competition to Middle East peace, and more. Brookings experts are advancing smart analysis and innovative solutions to inform and support values-based multilateralism and improve the U.S.’s approach to these and other critical issues.

One key example of this work is Senior Fellow Tony Pipa’s ongoing research on local community contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Brookings joined with the UN Foundation to host the third annual event on American Leadership in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. This year’s edition featured elected officials and leaders from philanthropy, business, and universities from Phoenix, Chicago, Orlando, and San Diego, whose new commitments and innovations on the SDGs embody the extent to which these global goals are rooted in American values and priorities.

On climate change, Fellow Samantha Gross, director of the Climate and Energy Initiative, published a series of reports on how to decarbonize the most challenging sectors of the economy, including heavy transportation and heavy industry. Her work explores the specific reasons why fossil fuels are central to these sectors and the potential solutions—with the United States at the lead—to overcome these challenges.

Global China, the signature effort on that country from the Brookings Foreign Policy program, devoted significant work to the question of China’s technological ambitions. The project’s capstone publication included several pieces on aspects of this critical issue, including 5G, surveillance technology, and chip manufacturing capabilities in the context of the long-term competition over how technology will serve as a tool in the competition over democratic values. Brookings has convened a number of dialogues with Chinese counterparts to foster candid discussion around artificial intelligence and other key technologies that can, depending on their use, serve constructive or malign ends.

American leadership has long played a central role in the pursuit of Middle East peace. After more than a decade of trying to reduce its military footprint in the region and wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States nonetheless seeks to protect its interests. Then-Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes, who has been nominated by President Biden to be assistant administrator for the Middle East at USAID, argues in “What to do—and what not to do—in the Middle East,” part of Brookings’s institution-wide Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity, for the United States to rebuild its diplomatic tools, clarify security commitments, and review its military presence in the Persian Gulf to promote peace and stability in the region.

Through the research and analysis supported by this priority, Brookings hopes to support the health and security of both America and the democratic world for many decades to come.