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Blue-sky ideas for Obama sought by new campus website

| 10 February 2009

The forecast appears sunny for "Blue Sky," a new campus website that showcases UC Berkeley faculty members' fresh policy ideas for the Obama administration.

The creation of Christopher Kutz, professor of law, the Blue Sky site is a growing collection of essays that currently includes Larry Karp and Jinhua Zhao on using trade to enforce emissions restrictions, Holly Doremus on restoring science to environmental policy, and Laurel Fletcher and Eric Stover on closing Guantanamo.

The day after Barack Obama's inauguration, Kutz posted the first 14 essays; there now are more than 20 on the site. He says about 10 more are in the wings, but hopes for many more submissions from professors and resident scholars on campus.

"The more the better," said Kutz. "I want this to be lively. Currently, we could use more essays on energy policy, certainly more on health policy, and on securities reform. We need creative new ideas on where to target stimulus spending and on how to reform school finance, solve the digital divide and manage risks in environmental policy. But really, I'm open to any well-defined advice for the Obama administration."

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said Blue Sky "is a great venue for the fresh ideas that have led to UC Berkeley's nickname of 'White House West.' There has always been a vibrant exchange of ideas between Berkeley and Washington, and this effort reflects new excitement and ideas on campus about how to address our nation's most pressing problems."

Blue Sky has caught the eye of Lois Kazakoff, the San Francisco Chronicle's deputy editorial page editor, who arranged for the two-page spread of four Blue Sky essays that appeared in the paper on Sunday, Jan. 25. Another essay ran that day in the Chronicle's Opinion Shop blog.

"Once I saw the Blue Sky format, I said, 'Oh, that will work,'" said Kazakoff, who is interested in running more of the short essays. "People will not read 1,000 words on some of these topics, but they will read 250. And those who read 250 will want to know more."

Kutz, who is vice chair of the campus Academic Senate, said he came up with the idea for Blue Sky after realizing that "around me at Berkeley, there was a profound sense of excitement at the possibility of influencing policy making in the Obama administration. And there were also so many people from Berkeley getting involved in the administration. A website seemed an obvious way to round up these policy ideas and to take advantage of Obama's interest in new media and grassroots, web-based communication."

The name "Blue Sky: New Ideas for the Obama Administration" refers to open-ended thinking and also to the Cal color blue, said Kutz. The forum was started and launched by the UC Berkeley School of Law, but the intent was always that it be a campus-wide effort.

Christopher Edley, dean of the law school, said that beyond joining in the widespread excitement about change in Washington, members of the faculty contributing to Blue Sky are "doing what they do best generating ideas and spurring thoughtful debates. As a veteran of national policymaking, I'm certain these bold, innovative ideas will be valuable contributions for our new administration."

Some of the Blue Sky essays are previously-published pieces. Michael Pollan's piece, "Farmer-in-Chief: An Open Letter to the President," ran last October in the New York Times Magazine. "A Low-Carbon National Energy Agenda," one of Dan Kammen's two essays on the site, first ran in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. But others have never been published before. Kutz said he wants to give faculty members a no-fuss platform for their blue-sky thinking, since "it can be frustrating getting op-eds published, especially as newspapers shrink."

Kazakoff at the San Francisco Chronicle said she was so taken with the Blue Sky format that it inspired her to create a Chronicle blog that will begin before the end of March. Called "Think Tank: Ideas for Transformative Change," it will feature two 250-word essays a week, and one of them also will run in the Insight section of the Sunday paper.

"We want it to be a place to talk about ideas for transformative change," she said, "and a place to introduce the Bay Area readership to a broad exchange of ideas that will make changes in our economy, our society, our technology, in every aspect of our lives. We need great minds at Cal to throw out as many ideas as possible."

Kazakoff said the blog will select entries from across the Bay Area and that entries "could be directed at Obama, but these are ideas we're hoping will get brought up in larger conversation." She welcomes e-mailed submissions at lkazakoff@sfchronicle.com.

Kutz's hope for Blue Sky is that policymakers in D.C. will read the essays and use them, or tap their authors for further discussion. "Given the number of Berkeley people deeply involved in the new administration, there's reason to think administration eyes will be upon [Blue Sky]," he said.

He also noted the Obama administration's new attentiveness in Washington to policy ideas from all corners.

"I tend to think that having a little distance here in Berkeley from the political game is helpful," he said. "I think that may be one of the things contributing to Berkeley's strength as a source of creative policy research."

Submissions to Blue Sky should be sent to Kutz at ckutz@law.berkeley.edu. Contributions should be 1,000 words or less and written in a style that's accessible to non-specialists. In addition to the piece itself, each entry should include a punchy title; the writer's name, institutional title, and web page link; and a first paragraph that clearly indicates the major point.