The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Professing and the Policy World

April 25, 2013

There is so much criticism of the academic enterprise these days, asserting that professors are too focused on research and not enough on teaching and not enough on relevance to the policy world. These critiques are hardly new, but bear more weight in a time of austerity. It is easy to point to some work that seems hardly relevant and some professors who seem least interested in engaging the “real world,” but I am constantly reminded of the opposite—professors who become deeply engaged in policy-making one way or another.

Tuesday night, I had the honor of being invited to the Canadian Governor-General’s residence, Rideau Hall, to celebrate the awarding of the Killam Prizes. Once I learned who was receiving one of the awards, my invitation started to make sense: John McGarry of Queen’s University. I have known John for some time and his work longer still, as it has had a powerful influence on how people think about power-sharing. How does one design democracy to foster peace even in divided societies, such as Northern Ireland? Not only has John’s work influenced how people think, but he has spent considerable time the past few years serving as a United Nations advisor to the negotiations in Cyprus.

John McGarry is hardly unique. My first International Relations course in grad school was with John Ruggie. His work at the time seemed hardly policy relevant, but this John also moved on to work with the UN, as Assistant Secretary General for Policy Planning and now as Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights.

Many scholars have been able to participate in the United States foreign policy apparatus via the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowships. Dan Drezner served in the Treasury Department; Peter Feaver, Stuart Kaufman and Jessica Stern served on the National Security Council; Duck-ster Dan Nexon and Colin Kahl served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Jean Garrison and Gale Mattox served in the State Department; and I served in the Joint Staff as Condoleezza Rice did years before me, to name just a few.

There are other pathways to the world of policy. For instance, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff has often been home to political scientists, including Bruce Jentleson, Stephen Krasner and Anne-Marie Slaughter. In just my first year in Ottawa, I have seen a number of scholars come through town to present their work to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to the Department of National Defence, and to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. In my year in Washington, DC a decade ago, I saw plenty of academics engage with policy makers at events held by the US Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Wilson Institute and many others.

The point here is that despite much ritual gnashing of teeth about the flawed connections between the academic world and the policy world and about the need to bridge the gap, the reality is that there has been significant crossover. Not everyone participates but not everyone has to do so. The professor profession is a very large tent including people ranging quite widely in skill, inclination and interest in the policy world. Not every professor has to work in the policy community although more of us do need to communicate our work beyond the classroom and beyond the gated community (academic journals).

We need to continue to engage the policy community, we need to do a better job of demonstrating to politicians that our work is relevant, and we need to inform the public as well. The joy of the 21st century is that we now have multiple outlets to reach out, including blogs and twitter. The challenge will be for the consumers to figure out to sift the signals from the noise.

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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.