Bridging the Gap to Nowhere?

17 May 2023, 0914 EDT

Frances Gavin’s recently declared that “the gap” between policymaking and academic research “has been bridged!” As evidence of International Relations’ newfound influence on the making of U.S. national-security policy, Dr. Gavin points to a handful of scholars who, having crossed the Gap on their own two feet, now occupy prominent government positions. This underscores, he argues, that programs like the International Policy Scholars Consortium and Network and the Nuclear Studies Research Initiative—as well as his own Texas National Security Review—have successfully constructed a communications channel between academia and policymakers.

This is a common line of argument among “gap-bridgers”—scholars who emphasize the importance of forging close connections between the academic study of international relations and the world of policymaking. The Bridging the Gap team’s recent, thorough review provides a good example. It focuses on opportunities and challenges for connecting academic knowledge to policymakers, while also celebrating the influence of a number of scholars on the policy landscape.

The gap-bridgers do, indeed, have much to celebrate. But I worry that the bridges that they aim to construct and maintain suffer from some critical design flaws. Chief among them: they are made by academics for academics. The engineers ask little of the policymakers on the other side.

Bridge-building must move beyond catering to policymakers. Academics bridge no gaps if they, for example, content themselves with providing validation for policymakers’ existing beliefs. It means little if someone with an academic background occupies an influential policy position if they perform their role no differently than would any other appointment.

The problem is that gap-bridgers tend to start with the wrong set of questions. Instead of asking “What do policymakers want from us?” we need to ask ones like “What should policymakers want from us?” and “What do we want from policymakers?”

The Gap is More Than Knowledge: It’s Epistemic

Perhaps no scholar did more to advance the conversation about the divide between academia and policymaking than Alexander George. In Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, he identified three types of policy-relevant knowledge: abstract conceptual models of foreign policy strategies, generic knowledge (that is, empirical laws and causal patterns), and actor-specific behavioral models.

Other scholars have built upon George’s arguments. Dan Reiter wrote that scholars help policymakers know their tools. Michael Horowitz offered four measures of policy-relevant knowledge: policy significance, accessibility, actionability, or agenda-setting impact on the public debate.

None of this knowledge matters, however, if government officials ignore it. Henry Kissinger, perhaps the most (in)famous academic-turned-policymaker, noted that policymakers have no time to study while on the job; they can only bring to the table what they learned before entering the policy arena.

Bridge-builders encourage scholars to ‘hide’ their methods and evidence

“Even the most highly developed general knowledge of a strategy cannot substitute for competent policy analysis within the government,” Alexander George wrote. But participants in the policy process suggest that, in recent years, it has gone from bad to worse. A report from two influential officials called the State Department’s clearance process “hell.” Putatively serious analysis in foreign policy occurs infrequently, and much of what does emerge is ad hoc rather than rigorous and systematic. It almost never includes consultations with academics or draws from scholarly research.

Even if policymakers do engage with academic work, there’s no guarantee that officials will understand it. Preparation for careers in foreign policy rarely emphasize training in methods and methodology. Surveys of policymakers demonstrate their deep distrust of social science methods.

Many, as I have learned in my frequent interactions with policymakers, are downright hostile to them.

Gap-bridgers must pay more attention to the degree that the foreign policy community simply dismisses much of the knowledge produced by social scientists. “It’s almost impossible to quantify what we do, and in fact, I think that there’s a great danger in trying,” said an influential former Ambassador at a recent event on the State Department’s Congressionally-mandated Learning Agenda. A high-ranking official concurred, “Diplomacy is an art, not a science.”

When policymakers extol the art of foreign policy, they are advancing a theory of knowledge—that is, they are taking a position on epistemology that ex ante rejects a lot of what we do in social-scientific research.

This is not, at heart, a matter of ‘qualitative versus quantitative methods,’ or ‘constructivism versus rationalism.’ Rather, their stance entails a rejection of the usefulness of systematic method altogether. It is a claim that the most important tools for policymaking are rooted in the ‘gut instincts’ and idiosyncratic beliefs of professional policymakers—and that the only ones qualified to assess foreign-policy decisions are, naturally, those who share the necessary experience to develop comparable instincts and hunches.

Dominant methods of policy analysis and decision making are badly outdated

The epistemology of the U.S. foreign-policy community bears a strong resemblance to what scholar Robert A. Kagan termed “adversarial legalism.” Instead of prioritizing solutions aimed at achieving policy objectives, the policy process weighs legal and political risks between entrenched bureaucratic interests. The “right policy” is whatever emerges from that process. The “top expert” is the official who has achieved decision-making authority.

Social-scientific epistemology is very different. Its goal is to produce the “right” answers. Even if one believes—as many academics do—that we will probably never know the exact “truth” or provide the “best” answers, social-scientific training emphasizes self-consciousness and transparency when it comes to epistemic choices.

The defining features of academia—the practices of citations, peer-review, hypothesis testing, university training and certification, a focus on methodology, and so on—aim to facilitate intellectual progress. In principle, scholarly authority derives from the quality of scholarship, not the other way around.

Efforts to “bridge the Gap” need to better wrestle with these differences.

Building a Better Bridge

Bridge-builders often encourage scholars to ‘hide’ their methods and evidence when speaking with policymakers. But this renders even the best scholarship indistinguishable from opinions, guesses, and even misinformation.

It is this state of affairs, not the nature of social science itself, that makes “lab leaks” from social science so dangerous.

At the very least, academics should avoid validating the anti-scientific views of many policymakers who dismiss social science as irrelevant.

Alexander George understood the challenge. In Bridging the Gap, he explained:

Quite obviously, substantive knowledge of foreign affairs can have no impact on policy unless it enters into the process of policymaking. Substantive knowledge must combine with the effective structuring and management of the policymaking process in order to improve the analytic (versus the political) component of policymaking.

But George never answers the question of how policy analysis within the government should work. One of the most important tasks of bridge-building involves providing answers.

Scholars should push policymakers to think more like scientists.

At the very least, scholars need to use their privileged position to hold policymakers accountable for making decisions that violate basic scientific norms. They must speak up when officials subordinate hard-won substantive knowledge to intuitive judgment and parochial political considerations. In the words of the longest-serving member of Congress in history, John Dingell, “If I let you write the substance and you let me write the procedure, I’ll screw you every time.”

Improving Policymakers’ Epistemology

Dominant methods of policy analysis and decision making are badly outdated, if not outright anti-scientific. Rather than expecting scholars to conform to policymakers’ ‘ways of seeing,’ scholars should push policymakers to think more like scientists.

If social scientists believe their work has value, then they (necessarily) believe in the value of their methods and epistemological beliefs.

Scholars have the tools and training to help improve every stage of the policy process. An improved foreign policy epistemology must:

  • Provide support for policymakers to research the big questions at the heart of their work;
  • Focus on getting policymakers to prioritize the accumulation of knowledge as a way of constructing an organizational culture capable of learning and evolution;
  • Encourage policymakers to think in terms of hypothesis testing—that is, investing in policy interventions that show the most promise while dispensing with those that repeatedly fail;
  • Make the case that the policy world should more frequently emulate aspects of the peer review process, with its emphasis on transparency and constructive critique.

Upgrading policy processes might include finding ways to improve, for example:

In short, a true “bridge” between scholarship and foreign-policy making should be constructed around the evidence-based policy movement and other efforts to improve the effectiveness of foreign policy.

The U.S. foreign policy community can learn a great deal from those other sectors of government that foster a much closer connection between research and practice, including public health, economic policy, and education. Even within the national security community, some agencies do a better job than others. Evidence-based methods play a larger role in international development, the intelligence community, and the Department of Defense than in the State Department or the National Security Council.

The good news is that bureaucratic footholds are emerging for scholars interested in advancing more scientific foreign policymaking. The Department of State recently launched its Learning Agenda, which Congress requested in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. The Global Fragility Act is prioritizing evidence and learning to reform the way the US government prevents and responds to conflict. Both the Departments of Defense and State are making high-profile investments into analytics and data.

Ultimately, the responsibility of building a bridge does not lie solely with academics. Those of us who care about the quality of foreign policy must help policymakers help close the Gap between research and practice. Neither academics nor policymakers have all the answers. But Americans – and billions around the globe affected by our decisions – deserve the best possible foreign policy.