Bridging the Policy-Academic Gap: Lessons from Australia

7 September 2023, 0711 EDT

The benefits of bridging the gap between academics and policymakers are well-known, but much of the research and practice is based on experiences in the United States. How well does it translate to other countries? A recent collaboration between Bridging the Gap (BtG) and Monash University in Australia highlighted significant differences between the countries’ policy-academic ecosystem – and underscored the need for further BtG-type training efforts down under.

Funded by a grant through the Australian Department of Defence, I worked with BtG colleagues to create and run a policy skills workshop for academics from underrepresented groups, as well an expert policy workshop on China’s Rise in the Indo-Pacific.  The goal was to expand and diversify the pool of policy-relevant scholars within Australia, building a wider range of innovative research expertise with which defence and the foreign policy community can engage.

We first provided an online, week-long policy skills training to the 18 academics, bringing them together with senior Australia experts to discuss how to write op-eds for newspapers and think tanks, interact with government officials, navigate social media, and think through ethical issues related to bridging the gap. Two months later, we facilitated the policy workshop, bringing together the newly trained academics and 12 Australian government analysts and officials.

Lesson 1: Less supply/ Fewer opportunities

First, compared to the United States, Australia has a relatively weak culture of practitioner-academic interactions within international relations. Across Australia’s government, think tanks, and academia, there is a much smaller pool of talent in international relations, and international security in particular.

For example, we have only a handful of major non-university-affiliated think tanks focused on foreign affairs and defence (such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Lowy Institute). In addition, Australia’s policy-academic nexus is much smaller and more closed than in the United States. In Australia, there is little personnel flow between the two groups. Scholars who join the government often find it difficult to return to academia because of the resulting publication and grant gaps on their CVs. Moreover, very few international relations departments offer Professor of Practice positions. In contrast, in the United States, policy experts often work in academia, and academics are often able to join the policy community, either through short-term or non-resident fellow positions.

There is also a lack of formal funding and development opportunities that exist specifically to enable this cross-fertilization. In the United States, opportunities include the Council on Foreign Relations’ range of fellowships, Atlantic Council Millennium Fellowship, and others. In Australia, no similar opportunities exist.

Lesson 2: Equal demand for engagement

Our second main lesson is that within Australia, there is a demand among policymakers, think tanks, and the media for access to well-trained, diverse voices in national security. Our speakers and policy participants expressed a strong desire to continue connections with lesser-known but high-quality academics. Policymakers indicated that they want to showcase and engage with diverse voices. However, policymakers have trouble finding academics who are well-trained in translating academic research into policy relevance.

For example, all three speakers for our op-ed/blog session – editors for influential newspapers and think tank blogs – gave the participants their direct email addresses and encouraged participants to write for their publications. As another example, one policy participant asked the academics to consider submitting their information for inclusion in the National Security College’s expert list, so that they may be called upon to provide consultations.

Lesson 3:  To meet demand, investment is required

Our third conclusion is that for Australia to fully maximize its international relations expertise, investment is required in training and cross-fertilization between policy experts and academics. Because Australia has a relatively small pool of foreign affairs experts, it only makes sense to harness all of it. Academics in Australia have deep expertise in many areas of importance to the government, but to access it, the national security community needs to invest in strengthening the culture of policy-academic interaction.

Such investment is particularly crucial if we want to include scholars who would not otherwise be part of the conversation, including women and culturally and linguistically diverse academics. Indeed, participants from government, the media and think tanks all indicated that they want to engage with diverse academic voices in national security but are often not able to locate such academics, especially those who are able to translate their research into policy-ready material. To strengthen their foreign policy readiness, Australian agencies should seriously consider greater investment in bridging the gap between their policy experts and the country’s high-quality, diverse scholars.


This collaboration was funded by an Australian Department of Defence Strategy Policy Grant.  It would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Bridging the Gap colleagues, who facilitated both workshops and created the original scenarios for the policy workshop:  James Goldgeier, Brent Durbin, Jordan Tama, Bruce Jentleston, Naazneen H. Barma, Erik Lin-Greenberg, Andrew Reddie, Rachel Whitlark, and Danielle Gilbert.  In addition, Kathryn Urban, Naazneen H. Barma, and James Goldgeier provided significant program planning and coordination.