A small 'think tank' gains large audience as it probes US policy

When it comes to expert analysis and critique of public policy, the heavyweight "think tanks" are well known: Brookings Institution, Ford Foundation , Hoover Institution, and a few other notables. Heavily endowed with funds and staff experts, they play a key role in shaping the nation's future.

Much smaller in size, but rapidly growing in stature and impact is a San Francisco-based organization whose voice increasingly is being heard -- and heeded -- by the "Eastern establishment." Like the West itself, the Institute for Contemporary Studies is younger, more activist, and generally more conservative than its venerable brethren.

The nonprofit institute was founded several years ago by a group of Ronald Reagan supporters and former appointees of the former California governor. Institute president H. Monroe Browne and executive director A. Lawrence Chickering both served under Governor Reagan in Sacramento. Among the organization's board of directors are Caspar Weinberger, who was California's director of finance during the Reagan years before he joined the Nixon cabinet, and current Reagan campaign strategist Edwin Meese.

But the respected economists, political scientists, and social commentators (now numbering more than 400) who have contributed to the institute's publications cannot all be labeled rock-ribbed Reaganites by any means. Nor are they necessarily true believers of the conservative stripe. Some 80 percent, in fact, are Democrats and under 40 years of age.

While economist Milton Friedman and conservative publisher William Rusher have contributed essays to the institute's books, so too have activist Tom Hayden and Joseph Rauh of the liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action.

"In the selection of authors, we start with who knows the most about the subject . . . Republican or Democrat, Hoover or Brookings," Mr. Browne says. "We're not searching for just one frame of mind. If we did, we'd be shrill and we wouldn't be read on the campuses.

"Of the score of books that have been published by the Institute for Contemporary Studies over the past five years (some of which have been reprinted as many as four times), many now are required reading on campuses from Harvard to Stanford.

These include studies of economic and land-use planning, taxes and social security reform, and government regulation of universities and businesses.

Different points of view often are included, but there is a decidedly free-market, less-government, pro-defense inclination to the institute's works. The authors concluded, for example, that current proposals for national health insurance "will have little impact on the nation's health and will cost far more than most estimates anticipate.

"In presenting its alternative strategy to President Carter's national energy policy, the institute recommended "relying on the adaptive capability of energy market to solve long-run problems." Detente has benefited the Soviet Union "enormously," another study concluded, "while the US has fallen dangerously behind."

The institute produces its studies rapid-fire (with a goal of 90 to 180 days from conception to publication) and follows up with active promotion in the nation's seats of power -- Washington, academia, and the news media.

The group intends to remain small, Mr. Browne says, relying on outside experts from academia and elsewhere rather than greatly expanding its own lean staff of six. In particular, it wants to give up-and-coming professors a chance to make their mark.

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