Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Policy Engagement* (*But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

18 November 2019, 0700 EST

Earlier this year, our team at the Sié Center at the University of Denver announced our program on the three R’s of Academic-Policy Engagement (or R3, if you prefer): Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility. Generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, our program is intended to both study and help train early-career scholars around the ethical issues that arise when academics—who face ever-increasing pressures to demonstrate the broader social impacts of their research—attempt to interface with policy audiences. Broadly speaking, our scholarly community is doing a good job of training scholars to engage: initiatives like the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG) have been massively successful in demystifying the mechanics of engagement: how to write for policy audiences, give good interviews, etc. BtG now has over 100 alums who are doing an excellent job of making IR scholarship legible for policy and general audiences.

This is mostly to the good. But in the field of international relations, engagement has not always been an unalloyed blessing or without controversy, both from the perspectives of academics and policymakers, but also from affected populations. Even well-intentioned policy engagement can entail ethical dilemmas and unforeseen or unintended consequences. From Thomas Schelling’s advocacy of strategic bombing in Vietnam to academic economists’ advocacy for rapid market reforms (what some called “shock therapy”) and the much-criticized deployment of academic researchers as part of the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see how researcher engagement in policy debates and implementation can carry risks. These risks force academics to confront the question of whether to engage in the first place. To quote Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom:

How do academics navigate these risks?

Much of the time, we’re navigating without a map or a compass. PhD students and early career academics in international relations receive little if any formal mentorship on professional ethics, particularly when compared to other engaged professions like law or social work. Policy engagement is still viewed with skepticism in many international relations departments. Given this, many early-career scholars may be reticent to raise these issues with their mentors—and their mentors, many having not been involved in bridging activities themselves, may not be in a position to offer guidance if asked.

I was lucky. I had a super engaged mentor—Steph Haggard—who opened doors, made introductions, and helped me strategize about engagement with policy audiences. But more importantly, he helped me think about navigating ethically ambiguous situations and helped me clean my wounds after inevitable mistakes. I have colleagues both present and past—Debbi AvantErica Chenoweth, Adam Posen, and Mike Tierney, just to name a few—on whom I can count for guidance or at the very least a sympathetic ear or a word of advice.

Not everyone is this lucky. 

This is precisely why we created the Anonymous Advice on the Ethics of Engagement platform. The Anonymous Advice on Responsible Engagement platform digitally convenes a wide-ranging panel of experienced policy-engaged scholars from the field of international relations to respond to anonymous questions about academic-policy engagement. This interactive resource is meant to provide candid advice and build a knowledge base to assist academics in interacting responsibly and constructively with governmental and nongovernmental policy actors at all stages of research, from developing policy-relevant questions to disseminating findings to policy audiences.

We hope this board presents opportunities for frank, no-nonsense talk about the sometimes thorny issues that arise when academics attempt to engage with policy audiences and processes. It is an experiment and a leap of faith: we welcome discussion about the platform itself and feedback on how it might be made most helpful and useful. Already, we have posted questions that can give readers a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish:

  • What happens when the sponsor of a project is sensitive about a researchers’ conclusions and asks for changes?
  • How do you productively engage with editors that want you to be less caveated and cautious in interpreting your findings in order to paint a clearer picture?
  • Can you accept honoraria or speaker fees from industries and entities you study and still remain impartial?

Providing a safe space to have these discussions is goal. But as important as that goal is, it’s important to establish also want we are nottrying to do: We’re not proclaiming ourselves ethical watchdogs or arbiters of ethical conduct. Many of our lessons have been gleaned from the school of hard knocks. Instead of shunning discussions of our own challenges and failures, we hope others can learn from them. In our PhD training, we do this all the time: using our own experiences and mistakes—and pointing them out in others’ research—as pedagogical tools. While mentoring around ethical engagement practices, we wish to do the same in a way that preserves the best elements of anonymity while leveraging hard-earned expertise. We’re trying to catalyze conversation. This is one way among many.In our current moment, with academics questioning the ethics of engagement with the US government, the need for these types of conversations is pressing. We hope to convene some of those conversations, and help the next generation of scholars engage with perspective and confidence.