Scholar/Policy Gap – Filling Up The Glass

28 December 2012, 1109 EST

I have read with great interest over the last few days posts by Jeffrey Stacey and now Sean Kay on the gap between scholarship and policy. I agree with much of what they said – seriously – and I want to raise a more positive spin on some of these issues. I the gap between policy and scholarship in Washington DC as *mildly* improving when it comes to political science, at least from the political science side of the question. This is not to say things are perfect. Far from it. But rather than thinking about political science in general, and international relations in particular, as a “cult of the irrelevant”, I think there are some green shoots, so to speak, or at least reasons to think that the glass is half full, rather than half empty. In what follows, I will lay out just a few of my reasons for optimism.

1. My sense is, and to be fair I do not have the data to back this up [though one could code journal articles from a set of journals over a period of time and test this], that there is actually much more policy relevant work going on in international relations than there was 15 or so years ago. Some of this has to do with the fact that it is used to be that people thought of work as either policy relevant on the one hand or using utilizing statistical methods or game theory on the other. Increasingly, however, there are academics doing work on topics of real world importance that also utilize statistical methods or game theory. To give just one example, take the recent article by Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro that uses micro-level violence data in Iraq to analyze the success of the Surge. Rather than the proverbial exception that proves the rule, I think this exemplifies a new generation of research by scholars that are comfortable at the Pentagon, speaking at think tanks, and running regressions.

2. The Internet has enabled academics who wish to write about contemporary foreign challenges to do so much more easily and reach policymakers, or at least staffers, think tankers, and others that avidly consume new media. This blog is certainly an example, but there are many others as well. Dan Drezner has written a great deal on this topic (and the broader scholar/policy gap issue in general). Aside from blogs, there are also columns like Laia Balcells and Stathis Kalyvas’ recent piece for on Syria. My perception is that the Internet and the online presence of websites such as are facilitating this exposure.

3. Kay points out that more money is needed to facilitate these scholar/policy interactions. He is completely right. However, existing funding is helping. For example, the Minerva program is funding cutting edge social science research on real world international conflict topics [full disclosure, I am part of a team that won a small Minerva grant last year to look at alliances between violent non-state actors]. The Stanton Foundation is currently funding fellowships at several leading academic institutions and think tanks for scholars interested in studying Nuclear Security. Partnering with the Council on Foreign Relations**, Stanton funding is also enabling a few academics each year to step out of the classroom and work in the national security establishment. These resources are encouraging scholars to work in these areas and reward those doing policy relevant research.

More pre and post doctoral fellowships, especially, would be helpful for scholars who want to do policy relevant research. Dartmouth’s program at the Dickey Center is a start and hopefully more will emerge – either more fellowships at existing centers or new centers that can encourage rigorous but policy relevant scholarship.

Are things perfect? Of course not. There is much, much that can be done to improve things. I think the pragmatic suggestions made by Stacey and Kay would certainly be a start. And the more support for programs like the Bridging the Gap Initiative (co-sponsored by the School of International Service at American University; the University of California, Berkeley; and Duke University, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York), the better.

The bottom line, for me, and I only speak for myself, is that the sky is not falling and things may even be improving a bit (if one’s goal is greater interaction between academia and policy in the area of international relations).

One question: For those out there that study international political economy and international organizations, instead of international conflict: Are there similar trends/efforts underway to connect IPE/IO scholars to the policy world? Does that happen more naturally? Or is it not happening?

I’ll stop there for now, but in a follow up I may address some of the reasons why I think there is at least some sort of disconnect between the view of international relations scholarship as increasingly irrelevant and the reality that I think I see evidence of on the ground.

**Full disclosure: I received an International Affairs Fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations this past year (not one of the ones funded by the Stanton Foundation) and I will be starting my fellowship term shortly, so I am not exactly a detached observer.