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Is International Relations Useful?

June 19, 2012

I just returned from a week long program at American University called Bridging the Gap: the International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI). Organized by the new Dean of AU’s School of International Service Jim Goldgeier, Duke’s Bruce Jentleson, Berkeley’s Steve Weber, and Smith College’s Brent Durbin, this was the faculty complement to the New Era program for graduate students that initially started at Berkeley several years ago by Steve, Brent, Ely Ratner, and Naazneen Barma.

For those who haven’t had a chance to participate in either program, I highly recommend them both. While the New Era conference focuses on a policy simulation, the IPSI program was all about skills building so that academics can learn how to publish and participate in policy-relevant venues with briefings from bloggers, journal and newspaper editors, media consultants, in-and- outers from the academic world, and practitioners. As in many of these intensive institutes, the best part was the amazing cohort of fellow participants. *See below the fold for a full list of this year’s participants.

In this post, I thought I’d explore the core substantive question at the heart of the IPSI program. Can policymakers learn from political scientists? 

The recent efforts by the U.S. House to defund the NSF political science programs make these concerns all the more salient (for brilliant coverage, see the Monkey Cage blog here, here among a number of other posts).

How wide is the policy-academia gap?
The conventional wisdom is that the gap between academia and policy is wide and possibly getting wider. Scholars like Mike Desch and Steven Van Evera lament the “cult of the irrelevant,” in part driven by disciplinary pressures, methods fetishism, and the rise of think tanks.

From the academic perspective, some survey evidence suggests more desire for policy-relevant work and perceptions of a stable gap. The recent 2012 TRIPS study from William and Mary suggests that the perception by scholars is mixed. 39% of scholars surveys suggested that the gap is not any wider that in was 20-30 years ago. 23% said it was shrinking while 37% said the gap was growing (q. 58). Scholars also expressed strong support for policy relevant work (q. 59).

It’s unclear what policymakers think of political science. In some circles, “professor” is a term of derision. That said, scholars like Peter Feaver and Colin Kahl (both of whom briefed us last week at IPSI), among others, have had an opportunity to serve in important positions, many of them gaining their exposure through fellowships like the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (IAF). 

What can we offer?
At IPSI, we concluded that academics are good at context and analysis but are less equipped, given their distance from the policy process, to provide specific policy recommendations. Our work may lead us to conclude support this kind of policy rather than that one, but rarely are we able to offer policymakers what they really want — specific advice like spend X million dollars by that agency on Y policy. Because of information asymmetries and habit, we don’t know enough about particular policy instruments.  We may be able to identify patterns that suggest democracies don’t fight wars with each other and elaborate a set of arguments about why this is so, but we are not well placed to tell the policymaking community what steps are needed to instantiate new democracies.

For someone sympathetic to the bridging the policy-academe gap, you might expect me to defend what contributions we can make. As Bob Jervis (who delivered the IPSI keynote) arguedI do think that our training may help us resist the temptations of bias, particularly the inappropriate use of decision short-cuts like historical analogies. In the best of circumstances, our critical thinking skills force us entertain alternative explanations and to look for observable implications of our argument. Those kinds of approaches may be useful in policymaking forcing decisionmakers to surface their assumptions about the likely consequences of their actions, “and then what?”

Not much?
However, while we may be able to offer policymakers some habits and methods that are healthy, we should be modest in our expectations of what influence any of us individually will likely have. There are many reasons to think that most of our work, even if framed as policy relevant, will never be read by anyone with influence on policy. 

Too long. While academic work tends to be long, most policy writing is short. By short, I mean one to two pages.  

Too much jargon. Moreover, we all know that academic writing favors jargon. We make a living coining neologisms. Formal and quantitative work were singled out for being less accessible than other political science, but other scholarship is hardly immune from being unintelligible. 

Too far away and far removed. Furthermore, a whole cadre of PhD-bearing experts now exists as a transmission belt between the academy and policy: think tankers. They are in Washington. They can be called on at short notice to prepare remarks across town on the Hill. 
These folks know the latest lingo of organizational acronyms. They know how to write for policy audiences.

Steve Krasner, who served as Director of Policy Planning in the George W. Bush Administration, also downplayed the potential policy-relevance of our work. Referencing Fearon and Laitin’s findings on the contributions of mountainous terrain to civil war, he wrote that such structural factors are “not something policymakers can do much about.”

Moreover, Krasner noted the challenges for policymakers to know how to deal with central tendencies in particular circumstances: “
A statistically significant general finding, may often be of little help for a policymaker dealing with a specific problem.”

A way forward?
In a recent Carnegie Foundation piece, my colleague Frank Gavin and former Dean (and former Obama Deputy Secretary of State) Jim Steinberg cautioned that scholars may also have difficulties providing practical advice to policymakers. Thinking about possible scenarios with respect to Iran and its nuclear program, they wrote: 

…we simply cannot know ahead of time, with any usable degree of certainty, what the answers to these questions will be, and therefore what optimal policy will turn out to be. Why? The answer is that none of the tools that social science academics labor so assiduously to develop and refine are capable of providing predictive outcomes with a usable degree of certainty. 

They suggest that the absence of responsibility may encourage academics to be in Tetlock’s terminology “hedgehogs” who know one big thing. There is no price for scholars of being wrong, and big bold singular predictions driven by general models tend to get attention:

Indeed, their ability to command the precious geography of the op-ed page usually turns on the ability to make categorical, rather than contingent assertions.

They suggest a more productive way forward to bring academic expertise to bear on policy would involve the revival of Eisenhower’s Solarium exercise, where different rival theories are discussed and debated in a more staid comparison of alternative scenarios. Leaving aside what contributions academics can make to policy, can we profit by spending some time in the policy world?

Scholars who have an opportunity to see how the policy process actually works will likely be better scholars for it. That may not be true of every scholar, but certainly scholars who study the policy process will learn a tremendous amount.

I also think our students will also profit from the experience by our ability to connect concepts from class to events we have experience firsthand, though the temptation might be to turn classes into policy war stories rather than theoretically relevant anecdotes that illuminate broader processes.

Should we engage policy?
There are still dangers for scholars trying to engage the policy world. The obvious challenge is time management and whether colleagues will appreciate your efforts. Certainly, the judgment of the institute was that doing policy relevant work is an “in addition to” complement to peer-reviewed scholarship rather than an “instead of” substitute. 

Moreover, people seeking to engage the policy world need to be mindful of their aims. Are they seeking headlines or hits, or is policy work part of a higher calling for public service that we should be doing as citizens? 
Pursuing policy relevant work merely to advance oneself is akin to being a celebrity fame seeker. Doing this kind of work for the right reasons may allow us to resist the temptation of saying things just to get in the paper or on the Internet. Editors have a preference for declarative statements that squeeze the nuance out of complex issues, potentially leading scholars to get far ahead of what their evidence shows. If you can’t come back to what you said or wrote and remain proud about the quality of your work or judgment, then your longevity and influence on the discipline and policy will likely be limited.

Another risk for scholars is the temptation to tailor research to fit the preferences of the policy community. While adjusting scholarship to be more policy relevant is the point, scholars may compromise their objectivity and rigor by saying what they think policymakers want to hear. There is no easy solution to prevent scholars from becoming guns for hire, other than the realization that each of us will be judged by our peers on the quality of our work. I doubt that scholars can retain their credibility in either camp if they cultivate schizophrenic personas, saying one thing in the academic world and writing something quite different for policy. That just seems like a bad idea.

I entered political science with normative aspirations for addressing the great problems of our age. I grew to appreciate the benefits of an academic perch for being able to study the issues I cared about. Ultimately, I don’t think we have to give up our aspirations for making the world a better place, and I would feel diminished as a person if my work was cut off from that wellspring of inspiration that got me interested in international relations in the first place.

* This year’s IPSI participants included: 
Séverine AutesserreSarah BushJeff Colgan, Courtenay Conrad, Martin Edwards, Tanisha Fazal, Ryan Grauer, Seva Gunitskiy, Caroline Hartzell, Nathan Paxton, Robert Reardon, Elizabeth Saunders, and Jeff Taliaferro.

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.