Bridging the Gap in National Security Studies

2 May 2020, 1722 EDT

This is a guest post from Paul Johnson, who is an operations research analyst with the US Army. His personal research ranges on topics from political violence and militias to security force loyalty and design.  The views expressed here do not represent the perspective of the US Army or Department of Defense.

Given this forum’s focus as an outlet helping bridge the gap, this post discusses ways that academics working on national security-related topics can make themselves and their work more accessible to potential end-users, as seen and experienced from the author’s perspective as a national-security practitioner.

A Wide Variety of Vital Contributions

Previous articles on this topic (e.g., see here and here) have pointed out a variety of contributions that scholars can make to applied work, including:

  • Theory, which provides an idea of how to view an emerging event or string of events, helping users “see the forest for the trees.”  From an analytical perspective, being able to point to a solid body of social-science literature backing up a framework — especially a literature with fairly settled empirical findings — increases the credibility of that framework for application to real-world problems.
  • Data, which may be quantitative or qualitative.  Publically accessible social science datasets often find their way into analytical usage in national-security settings as the best available data on a topic of interest.  Similarly, the perspective of area specialists, also known as subject matter experts (or “smees”), on a given country or set of countries can provide highly valued information.
  • Forecasts, which can be as simple as a most-likely-outcome statement.  Bonus points for willingness to take a stab at a probability point-estimate for that statement, and more points for being explicit about uncertainty.
  • Advice about what to do in a given real-world situation.  Since most empirical scholars focus on establishing ceteris-paribus relationships across a large number of cases, practicing applying that work to a specific case usually requires a bit of a mindset shift, but adopting that mindset is necessary for any applied work.
  • Analytical methodology, which finds its way into applied work through a variety of means. Some of these means include PhD students being hired into federal government, ongoing professionalization for current civil-servant analysts, and academics working as government contractors or other forms of participation on a per-project basis.

Practical Advice for Outreach

How do scholars put themselves in a position to be able to make these kinds of contributions?  The most crucial route is through networking in national security circles. When in need, policymakers tend to turn to experts they know by face and name rather than turn to sources those experts may have written. Think tank events, such as hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research, by university institutes like those residing at National Defense University, or by the US military, such as the Strategic Multilayer Assessment, Military Operations Symposium, and USSTRATCOM Academic Alliance teleconferences and annual meetings, all provide rich opportunities to establish these connections in person. These events also provide an excellent forum for scholars to share insights directly: most feature university professors as panelists and presenters.

Making existing research accessible to a general audience is another route. Beside this forum, blogs such as Political Violence at a Glance, War on the Rocks, Lawfare, Monkey Cage, and The Upshot regularly feature examples of researchers summarizing the findings from their existing work and policy-related insights stemming from those findings.  Publishing commentaries in widely-read magazines like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, or The National Interest can be even more effective, especially for an older and therefore higher-grade but less web-savvy audience.

“Pop-science” books are another useful and underappreciated outlet, especially for summarizing trends and findings in a research field. Policymakers tend to be insatiably curious and engage in continued learning on topics of interest and relevance to their work, but nearly always through books written for a general audience. Pop-science books provide high-level summaries of research fields for non-specialists, similar to how academic review articles such as published by journals like Annual Review of Political Science provide an entry point into a given research topic for academics.

Pop-science books are widely consumed, not least because they are nearly always very readable, written in an engaging style (which contrasts sharply with most academic publishing). Political science, and in particular the political-violence and national-security subfields, has tended to lag behind other academic fields such as economics (think Freakonomics) and psychology (e.g., Thinking Fast and Slow) in producing pop-science books, but the opportunity is certainly there.

Regularly practicing applying one’s work to a specific case that is currently in the news media allows the researcher to anticipate moments when his or her specialty suddenly comes into demand. Writing up a draft op-ed piece or blog piece as events are unfolding enables one to provide real-time commentary at a moment’s notice, such as recent commentaries that have appeared (e.g., here, here, and here) by political scientists on the political and national-security impacts of COVID-19. 

Similarly, regularly attempting to write up an article-length report applying one’s research in depth to a specific case is valuable; see, for instance, this excellent example of a report commissioned by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum applying game-theoretic methods to a real-world case.  As opposed to most game-theoretic work where the model is treated as the finished product, the author of that USHMM report explains in detail how insights from the model illuminate pros and cons of US policy options for the contemporary issue of protecting civilians in Syria. Applied research such as that also provides exactly the kind of material needed for presentations at national-security conferences and events.

Last, a shout-out: the political science forum Bridging the Gap Project has been working for years to provide training to academics for how to apply their work to the real world, help making connections to policymakers, and resources such as fellowships, workshops, and job-boards. Every scholar interested enough in bridging the gap to have made it through this blog post should join BTG’s scholar network and attend their conference receptions as very easy first steps toward contributing to real-world national-security policy and practice.