The Academic-Policy Nexus (Or Lack Thereof)

22 December 2012, 2324 EST

In my first post after signing on with “Team Duck” I thought, before jumping into a series of weighty topics–rise of the east, end of the west, cratering of the middle east–it might be worth reflecting a little on my sojourn as a policymaker after beginning my career as a Political Scientist. As an IR scholar I started out specializing in the politics of international economics before gradually shifting over to the security studies side of this Poli Sci subfield.

After an initial brush with death by acronymia when I joined the State Department, I was surprised at how well my training as a social scientist had prepared me for the policy world. I had wrongly assumed the precise opposite. Certainly my new colleagues at the time had assumed so as well. I recall a meeting a few weeks in at the outset of the current Administration. Various team members were reporting our progress to our boss, and the deputy team lead pulled me aside after with simple words of surpise: “Wow, you can actually do stuff.”

My first realization was that simply by virtue of how an academic always needs to more or less constantly stay up on advances in the literature, I had a knowledge base that almost all my colleagues lacked. For example, a discussion of terrorism included the postulation that poverty causes terrorism; yet I knew that academic studies had proven this wrong. To take another example, when the topic of democratization came up no one else in the room knew that democracies do not fight wars with one another.

I’m no genius–not then and not now. I simply had a different background. It was illuminating to discover that most policymakers had obtained at most a Masters degree prior to launching their policy careers, but while Masters students learn a variety of things they generally do not obtain a thorough grasp of a body of scholarly work and the advances therein. I found out that the lack of this is more costly in government than most policymakers realize.

It is widely believed that the gulf between scholars and policymakers is largely insurmountable primarily due to the so-called inability of each side to speak the other’s language. I don’t buy this. I believe that with a little smarts and a lot of work an individual with a background only in one can before long acquit him or herself admirably in the other.

My primary take-away from working at State, and having a large amount of interaction with the Defense Department and USAID along the way, is that policy outcomes would be a lot more effective if policies were formulated on the basis of academic studies whereby solid research supports going in one direction versus another. In short, all policies should hang their hats on an academic hook or two.

In my view it comes down to this:  what in the policy world is a policy problem in search of a solution is tantamount to what in the academic world is a puzzle in search of an explanation. Thus, any policy solution should only be chosen when an alignment with at least one published research study can be achieved. Otherwise, policymakers may go with logic, common sense, intelligence, and world experience and still formulate a flawed policy based, for example, on a belief that poverty causes terrorism.

But as many of you will be quick to point out, a policymaker simply cannot as a matter of course be scouring the academic literature like David Brooks does, Tom Friedman should, and Paul Krugman has no need to. As a policymaker I was no different: I had no time to do any such thing. But I did benefit a lot from my background. You might be prone to believe this is what think tanks are for. But being in one at the moment I don’t agree.

Most think tank “scholars” either don’t have PhDs or have stopped paying attention to the academic literature; as such studies at think tanks often contain more commentary and opinion than actual analysis and research, particularly the kind of research that is evidence-based and methodologically sound.  Granted, among themselves academics have highly robust debates about these matters.  But without even trying academics basically present a kind of united front to the outside world, which in some ways is useful.

Allow me to give an instructive example.  My first major task at the State Department was to oversee a lessons learned exercise about the problems we and DOD/USAID were having with Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I led a series of meetings with nearly 50 different stakeholders in the government, including the lessons learned shops in each of our military services.  We designed a study of the problems we were having with PRTs, whose effectiveness had been called into serious question by 2008.

This interagency taskforce designed a study that to this day involves interviewing returning members of PRTs from both theaters, both civilian and military personnel.  Each interviewed PRT returnee also takes a survey, and all the data from these are analyzed by teams at the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University here in Washington.  I knew that it would be incredibly difficult to take a random sample of this “population”, so I tried to convince my counterparts that in essense we needed to be sure to interview every single member of every single PRT or as close to this as we could humanly get.

But I didn’t do a very good job of convincing my colleagues, most of whom had been in government a lot longer than I had.  When I talked about the purity of data principle they just looked at me like I was nuts.  In the process I learned a lot about how not to talk like an academic.  I ended up having to come up with a series of analogies to explain that we would make flawed policy if we collected flawed data.  Lo and behold the first batch of interviewees that we landed in our net included a large majority of civilian PRT members and far more from State than USAID.  I was at pains to explain that the initial analysis we did of this data could only be used in an exploratory sense–i.e. with a large grain of salt.

At the 2010 G8 Summit in Canada my Assistant Secretary and I floated a proposal for the G8 to set up a permanent Academic-Policy Center.  I arrived in Ottawa three days in advance to participate in a brilliant academic-policy workshop put on by Roland Paris.  He had the clever idea of inviting a carefully selected group of academics who had been publishing studies on the policy problems that this G8 Summit was taking up, essentially how to stabilize countries emerging from conflict such as Iraq.

For example, a pair of scholars presented the results of their study of CERP funding, i.e. Commander’s Emergency Response Program funds or so-called “walking around money” that officers in Iraq would give to local leaders in places like Iraq to build schools, sewer systems, roads, etc.  The conventional wisdom at the time told us all that CERP funding had largely failed, as there was little accountability or even solid record keeping on what was handed out, to whom, and with what result; numerous abuses were discovered.  But these two scholars presented a sophisticated study showing that in areas of Baghdad and greater Baghdad where CERP funding was the highest, violence levels were the lowest.  It was an impressive and in some ways counter intuitive result, and I took their paper upon my return to Washington and put it directly in the hands of the Colonel in DOD who was in charge PRTs on the military side.

Back at the G8 we proposed an Academic-Policy Center that would house 10 PhD analysts who would take taskings or requests from the G8 governments and then scour the academic literature and write briefings based on the relevant studies of Problem X in various journals and academic press books on the subject.  The idea was that these bite-sized briefings could, better than anything the governments currently had at their disposal, provide the basis for sound policymaking for a variety of policy problems they faced in unison.

Suffice it to say that after making diplomatic progress on our proposal, all the diplomats and policymakers in attendance had the rug pulled out from under us by the lame brain government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  What an oaf.  After a ridiculous domestic political controversy about funding abortion of all things, Harper’s government pulled all the Canadian funding that was on the table at the G8 Summit across town.  As we were in the early days of what become a deep global recession, as soon as the Canadians pulled their funding everyone else followed suit and all our various well founded proposals went by the wayside as well.  My boss and I went to see the Political Director at the Canadian Foreign Ministry the next day, which was like attending a funeral.

I still believe in the need for such a center or something very similar.  We can bridge the gap between foreign policy makers and IR scholars, which should start with the basic proposition that academic research can help us solve many of the nastiest most recurring policy problems.  In rare instances, this connection does get made.  But these times are too far and in-between.  We’ll get better policy outcomes when we start closing the gap between town and gown.