This is the third in a series of posts about bridging the gap between policy and academia. The first focused on principles for engagement. The second on short-form writing, including blogging.  

Another way to engage the policy world is writing long-form papers for think tanks. I’ve written for a number of think tanks and held fellowship positions at several (I’m currently a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs). Most of them fell in my lap where a think tank approached me because they were already familiar with my work or I knew folks who were there.

Think tank writing can be an interesting complement to your peer reviewed publications and can occasionally provide some money. Again, it is not a substitute for peer-reviewed publications and will not get you tenure, but you can develop expertise and a reputation in the policy community as a serious person on a topic through long-form writing.

Can I Retain Credibility in Academia and Write for Policy Audiences?

Writing for think tanks is challenging in a couple of respects. First, there is always the need to sharpen your argument to explain why the readers should care, which could be U.S. foreign policy practitioners or some other target audience such as multilateral donors, what have you. In so doing, there is always the temptation to make more dramatic or clearer claims than the evidence suggests.

It is often hard to extract clear policy guidance from nuanced, ambiguous findings in the academic literature. But there is less room for “on the one hand and on the other hand” type of discussion in policy circles.

So, for those of us who want to have credibility in both camps, it can be hard, especially if you have been asked to write something by a very prominent person who has fixed views about a problem that depart a bit from your own read of the literature.

Imagine what your academic peers will think of what you write and make sure you feel comfortable having whatever you write attached to your name. If you want to be credible over the long-haul, there is no point in making bold claims that are not supported by evidence.

Recommendations are Hard

A second challenge is that it is hard to come up with good policy recommendations that are specific, actionable and original. I don’t know if we are trained for that.

Often, it requires knowledge about existing bureaucratic systems and programs. General guidance like do more training or invest more in X are kind of perfunctory so getting a handle on what is needed and possible requires conversations with people closer to the policy space.

We are not very good at this, and I can’t say with confidence I’ve figured out how to do this other than collect ideas by talking to others.

It is Time Intensive

A third challenge is that writing for think tanks can be incredibly time consuming.

Let me give you an example. I just completed a piece on water and US national security for the Council on Foreign Relations. I wrote a draft in the middle of last year after much reading and numerous interviews with water experts. The Council convened a group to review the piece, and I then revised the piece.

They then sent it out to external reviewers and the program leaders provided additional commentary. I revised the piece again. It then went to the senior folks at the Council who provided further feedback as did  their communications department. I revised the piece again.

The piece came out two weeks ago, which was followed by a blog post, other social media, and a launch eventThe upshot is that all that takes a ton of time. What makes it worth it to you? The money? Who you meet? Who reads it?

One of my most cited pieces is a 2007 paper I wrote for the Council on climate change and national security. Aside from the visibility, what made it worth it was challenging line edits from Richard Haass, president of the Council and former director of Policy Planning at the State Department. That’s an opportunity that is hard to turn down.

Do You Want to Leave Academia and Join a Think Tank?

I have friends who have gone over from an academic route to think tanks. The grass always seems greener on the other side, but folks at think tank face their own set of difficulties.

Where we have the challenge of publishing in peer-reviewed outlets, their primary challenge is having to constantly raise money to support their time. That can potentially impinge on what kinds of questions people feel like they can ask and answer if they are constantly trying cater their research programs to the fickle tastes of funders.

Even if they are free to pursue research of their choosing, the uncertainty of funding and the need to hustle can be a big drain on one’s time and psyche. In my next post, I’m going to talk about policy-relevant courses.