This is a guest post by Leanne Erdberg Steadman, director of violent extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Policymaking is a complex system. It may seem linear and straightforward, but it hardly ever is. The process, even when it follows the tenets of the Scowcroft model, is a vibrant, cacophonous ecosystem of input, interactions, ideation, and iteration. As such, academic research findings and policy-engaged scholarship exist in this dynamic system, but they are but one of many contributions to policymaking—let alone outcomes of the policies. Inside the system, it is difficult to ascertain such dependencies as X caused Y or Y caused Z. The concepts of multifinality (the same path can lead to many different outcomes) and equifinality (one outcome can result from many different paths) are much more helpful in describing this system. And as such, academics should not overestimate the individual influence they have over policy outcomes. They are a part of the process, but their input is less like that of an architect and more like that of a contractor contributing a small piece to a building project.

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