Five Lessons for responsible engagement when the world is on fire

6 September 2022, 0753 EDT

Waves of global crises have generated challenges in nearly every corner of human life. Catastrophic climate change, an ever-morphing global pandemic, widening democratic decline, rising economic inequality, increasing violence, geopolitical rivalry, and war join deeply entrenched systemic racism and sexism to create a toxic cocktail. How can “experts” productively engage at this moment? Practitioners often seek out guidance from experts during upheavals like ours, but policy-engaged scholars face dilemmas that complicate their response.

To begin, crises are often the product of complex, interdisciplinary dynamics, larger than the discrete disciplines in which scholars are trained. Also, policymakers often seek certainty and clear advice from experts, but scholarship is contingent on assumptions and available evidence, and almost always carries with it a degree of uncertainty. Compressed, emergency-driven timelines can create pressures to disregard the careful conceptualization, data collection, and analysis important for high-quality research.

Practitioners also have their own agendas, not always visible, which may not line up with those of the researcher. Finally, tumult has upset the university environment; scholars confront pressures to be productive and relevant even as they face difficult personal and financial circumstances. How should we navigate these and other dilemmas to bring our scholarly endeavor in productive interface with its subject matter, especially in times of crisis?

These issues have driven an ad hoc ISA committee which, among other activities, will be hosting a series of conversations on the role of international studies in the world. The goal of these conversations is to join perspectives from different parts of the world and different issue areas on policy engagement in our tumultuous time. This series began with a roundtable at the 2022 meeting of the International Interdisciplinary Studies conference in Crete.

During the roundtable, a trans-Atlantic group of policy-engaged scholars reflected on these dilemmas from their various social and political contexts. Here are five lessons that emerged:

Lesson 1: The research on which your advice is based likely began years ago

Our first lesson came from Mike Tierney, who offered lessons learned from the genesis of AidData—a William and Mary research lab aimed toward collecting better, more granular, and comprehensive data on foreign assistance worldwide. AidData began with a focus that was distinctly scholarly and methodological, purposefully distant from policy concerns that could introduce bias.

This very feature, though, has led to productive analysis that has generated demand from policy makers, including those serving the U.S. and Chinese governments, among others. The demand, in turn, has led researchers at AidData to engage more directly with policy partners to generate new information and to demonstrate how this information can be useful within policy processes.

Tierney’s reflection demonstrated how projects often unfold over time and the different dilemmas that arise at different moments. Overall, though, he reminded the audience that scholarly work is a long-term project and the choices we make about how to structure data collection and engagement early on may be called upon to meet a very different purpose years later.

Lesson 2: You may be the expert, but you should expect politicians to be in the driver’s seat

Eric Degila elaborated on one of the key dilemmas we highlight above. Though scholars may be experts in their area of focus, their expertise will often be used by politicians with their own agendas. In describing his many interactions with the African Union and others, Degila brought this dilemma to life.

His practice is to accept this state of affairs and couch his advice accordingly, in the knowledge that it is likely to be used not just to solve pressing concerns but to advantage one or another political player. Awareness of the dilemma may not solve it but can help avoid the most problematic outcomes.

Lesson 3: You are more likely to influence practitioners you already know—in  language they’ll understand

Balacz Martonffy, familiar with academic institutions in both the United States and Hungary, reflected first on the different environments and relationships between policy makers and academics in different countries. His lesson, though, was focused on the form that policy advice often takes during crises.

As disasters unfold, policy makers are likely to engage with those they already know, having conversations rather than pouring over articles. Scholars do well to use what they know of their interlocuters to frame their analysis and advice in language that will make sense to them.

Lesson 4: Policy advice is best when it is a dialogue among strangers.

Nicole Deitelhoff reflected on the dangers of too-close ties with policymakers. When academics and policymakers become friends, their relationship can blur the lines between political thinking and scientific expertise. Research is better conducted at a distance where there is less potential for political goals to infuse scholarship. This helps ensure that expert advice is based on more objectively situated data and analysis.

Lesson 5: The academic literature may not be as “true” as we think it is

My reflection was on a lesson I learned from being wrong. In 2004, my research on the private military and security industry led the International Committee of the Red Cross to come to me for advice on steps toward governing this industry which was causing so much turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan. I used state-of-the-art political science arguments about global governance to shoot down all of their ideas.

We should only expect governance, I told them, if powerful states like the United States were on board. And the U.S. was not; it saw transnational governance efforts as undercutting the flexibility this industry provided. My advice—and this literature—ignored the potential that a set of informal meetings among stakeholders could shift the agenda in ways that changed how the U.S. saw its interests.

But that is precisely what happened. This experience redirected my research. It led me to engage more purposefully and curiously with practitioners to understand the possibilities they see. It also left me humbled about the limits of what even very good research can tell us about what will happen in particular instances.

Looking ahead

These five reflections prompted a lively conversation among the panelists and with many audience members. I look forward to many more of these discussions throughout the year. If you are interested, you can sign up for our September panel or find information about the whole series.