Tag: bridging the gap

Against Policy Relevance: A Polemic


Over on my Facebook feed, there’s a good discussion going on about Adam Elkus’ “The Problem of Bridging the Gap.” Elkus’ post amounts to, quite deliberately, a medium-length polemic against “policy relevance.” That is, he aims to provoke.

For example, Elkus argues that:

It judges the value of academic inquiry from the perspective of whether or not it concords with the values, aims, preferences, and policy concerns and goals of a few powerful elites. Why, if anything, do we judge “policy relevance” by whether or not it helps governmentpolicy elites? Surely governmental elites, politicians, think-tankers, etc aren’t the only people who care about policy! The “policy relevance” model is simply a normatively unjustified statement that political scientists and social scientists in general ought to cater to the desires and whims of elite governmental policymakers.


It demands that academic inquiry ought to be formulated around the whims and desires of the people being studied. One does not see this demand outside of the political science policy relevance wars. No one asks psychologists whether experiments are “relevant” to lab rats because it would be absurd to base research around what the experimental subject wants. Psychologists also do not care whether or not the college students that are paid to populate their experiments find their research “relevant” or understandable. Nor do neuroscientists inquire about the preferences of neuronal populations or biologists the opinions of ant colonies. Yet political scientists ought to cater to a narrow set of policy elites that they (partly) study?

You should go read the whole thing. Continue reading

Normative dilemma of writing policy?

This week, courtesy of my colleague Adam Stulberg and the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy, our department hosted Matthew Kroenig. When I first learned of Kroenig’s visit, my initial thought was that it would be a great opportunity to do (yet another) take on his arguments regarding the possible use of force against Iran. But I think there is little value added to such an exercise. It has been done, not only here on the Duck but in other venues as well. What I think might be a more fruitful way to take advantage of Kroenig’s visit is to think about some of the challenges of bridging the gap between academics and policymakers.


Specifically, I am thinking here about the possible parallels with Jef Huysmans’ examination of the normative dilemma of writing security. Like myself, Huysmans is writing from a social constructivist perspective, and as such understands “the creation of a security problem as a social phenomenon.” Security then is the “result of a practice of definition: security is what agents make of it.” These insights inform discourse-oriented constructivist approaches to security like securitization theory. Turning issues into security then involves, among other things, “…a particular kind of knowledge (security knowledge)”. This is where the dilemma comes in: by analyzing and writing about the practices and discourses of security, scholars may in turn reinforce and reify those practices and discourses. This occurs not only through the repetition of the security claims, but also through the legitimacy imparted through association with the authority of academia. As Huysmans points out, in this discursive interpretation, “speaking and writing about security is never innocent.”


What if the normative dilemma of writing is not constrained to security, but to the larger interface between the academy and the policy world? That is, in seeking to influence/provide value to policymakers, scholars unavoidably shift themselves from the position of analyst to the position of political actors, and in the process create and reify policy dynamics. Which brings me back to Kroenig. A skim of his CV quickly reveals that he has built his career in a substantial way on bridging the gap between academia and policy. While I suspect that Kroenig does not accept the epistemological or ontological precursors to Huysmans’ arguments, I thought it worthwhile nonetheless to ask Kroenig what he thought of the dilemma. He answered, more or less, that he felt there was a substantial amount of misinformation regarding US policy (and policy options) toward Iran’s nuclear program, and he sought to rectify that misinformation. Therein I suspect lies a substantial part of the charm for academics regarding bridging the academy-policy gap. By contributing to the policy discussion, academics improve the marketplace of ideas that underpins policymaking. That is a powerful lure, and in some ways gets scholars out of the dilemma by reversing the normative dilemma into a normative imperative: it is a socially good and normatively desirable for scholars, with their carefully considered arguments, deep knowledge, emphasis on analytical and theoretical thinking, and focus on linking theory with empirics to enrich the public/policy discourses and as a consequence improve the store of ideas from which policymakers make their withdrawals.


I don’t know if there is an answer to the dilemma of writing policy or security. And perhaps the dilemma for policy broadly is less problematic than for security specifically. Or perhaps the dilemma of writing security does not translate at all to policy writ large. Nonetheless, I am left with a nagging concern. As I watched Kroenig’s public talk (which is impressive) I found myself analyzing him as a securitizing actor. How was he making his arguments about Iran as a threat to the United States? What social and discursive tools was he drawing on? Therein lies the source of my concern. In bridging the gap, at least on this security related issue, Kroenig (perhaps unavoidably) goes from being a security analyst to a security actor. He is in his own way creating a specific security knowledge, of Iran and its nuclear program (and possible nuclear weapons) as a threat to the United States. I suspect for Kroenig that is not a problem because he does not share my or Huysmans theoretical orientation. But for those that do, it becomes very challenging to think about how to bridge the gap without becoming a part of the very security/policy practices we seek to examine, uncover, and problematize.

Of Polls and Public Engagement in International Relations

This is a guest post by Idean Salehyan.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing and debate lately as to whether or not academics are engaged enough with important policy questions (See Nicholas Kristof’s article in the New York Times and just a few responses, here and here).  As this conversation was circling around the blogosphere, there was an impressive initiative to poll International Relations (IR) scholars about their views and predictions regarding foreign affairs.   Such surveys have the potential to make a big splash inside and outside of academia.

For several years, scholars at the College of William and Mary have conducted the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey, which gauges IR scholars’ views of the discipline, including department and journal rankings, epistemology, and so on.  This endeavor was largely inward-looking.  Yet for the first time, the folks at TRIP conducted a “snap poll” of IR scholars to measure the collective wisdom of the field regarding current international events.  The results of the first snap poll were recently released at Foreign Policy.  It included questions on Syria, the crisis in Ukraine, and the U.S. Defense Budget.  Key findings include that IR scholars do not think that Syria will comply on time (if at all) with plans to eliminate its chemical weapons; very few correctly predicted that Russia would send troops to Ukraine; and most do not believe that proposed cuts to the U.S. military budget will negatively effect national security.  Additional polls are being planned, providing an extremely important tool for engaging policy makers and the general public. Continue reading

Is International Relations Useful?

I just returned from a week long program at American University called Bridging the Gap: the International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI). Organized by the new Dean of AU’s School of International Service Jim Goldgeier, Duke’s Bruce Jentleson, Berkeley’s Steve Weber, and Smith College’s Brent Durbin, this was the faculty complement to the New Era program for graduate students that initially started at Berkeley several years ago by Steve, Brent, Ely Ratner, and Naazneen Barma.

For those who haven’t had a chance to participate in either program, I highly recommend them both. While the New Era conference focuses on a policy simulation, the IPSI program was all about skills building so that academics can learn how to publish and participate in policy-relevant venues with briefings from bloggers, journal and newspaper editors, media consultants, in-and- outers from the academic world, and practitioners. As in many of these intensive institutes, the best part was the amazing cohort of fellow participants. *See below the fold for a full list of this year’s participants.

In this post, I thought I’d explore the core substantive question at the heart of the IPSI program. Can policymakers learn from political scientists? 

The recent efforts by the U.S. House to defund the NSF political science programs make these concerns all the more salient (for brilliant coverage, see the Monkey Cage blog here, here among a number of other posts).

How wide is the policy-academia gap?
The conventional wisdom is that the gap between academia and policy is wide and possibly getting wider. Scholars like Mike Desch and Steven Van Evera lament the “cult of the irrelevant,” in part driven by disciplinary pressures, methods fetishism, and the rise of think tanks.

From the academic perspective, some survey evidence suggests more desire for policy-relevant work and perceptions of a stable gap. The recent 2012 TRIPS study from William and Mary suggests that the perception by scholars is mixed. 39% of scholars surveys suggested that the gap is not any wider that in was 20-30 years ago. 23% said it was shrinking while 37% said the gap was growing (q. 58). Scholars also expressed strong support for policy relevant work (q. 59).

It’s unclear what policymakers think of political science. In some circles, “professor” is a term of derision. That said, scholars like Peter Feaver and Colin Kahl (both of whom briefed us last week at IPSI), among others, have had an opportunity to serve in important positions, many of them gaining their exposure through fellowships like the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (IAF). 

What can we offer?
At IPSI, we concluded that academics are good at context and analysis but are less equipped, given their distance from the policy process, to provide specific policy recommendations. Our work may lead us to conclude support this kind of policy rather than that one, but rarely are we able to offer policymakers what they really want — specific advice like spend X million dollars by that agency on Y policy. Because of information asymmetries and habit, we don’t know enough about particular policy instruments.  We may be able to identify patterns that suggest democracies don’t fight wars with each other and elaborate a set of arguments about why this is so, but we are not well placed to tell the policymaking community what steps are needed to instantiate new democracies.

For someone sympathetic to the bridging the policy-academe gap, you might expect me to defend what contributions we can make. As Bob Jervis (who delivered the IPSI keynote) arguedI do think that our training may help us resist the temptations of bias, particularly the inappropriate use of decision short-cuts like historical analogies. In the best of circumstances, our critical thinking skills force us entertain alternative explanations and to look for observable implications of our argument. Those kinds of approaches may be useful in policymaking forcing decisionmakers to surface their assumptions about the likely consequences of their actions, “and then what?”

Not much?
However, while we may be able to offer policymakers some habits and methods that are healthy, we should be modest in our expectations of what influence any of us individually will likely have. There are many reasons to think that most of our work, even if framed as policy relevant, will never be read by anyone with influence on policy. 

Too long. While academic work tends to be long, most policy writing is short. By short, I mean one to two pages.  

Too much jargon. Moreover, we all know that academic writing favors jargon. We make a living coining neologisms. Formal and quantitative work were singled out for being less accessible than other political science, but other scholarship is hardly immune from being unintelligible. 

Too far away and far removed. Furthermore, a whole cadre of PhD-bearing experts now exists as a transmission belt between the academy and policy: think tankers. They are in Washington. They can be called on at short notice to prepare remarks across town on the Hill. 
These folks know the latest lingo of organizational acronyms. They know how to write for policy audiences.

Steve Krasner, who served as Director of Policy Planning in the George W. Bush Administration, also downplayed the potential policy-relevance of our work. Referencing Fearon and Laitin’s findings on the contributions of mountainous terrain to civil war, he wrote that such structural factors are “not something policymakers can do much about.”

Moreover, Krasner noted the challenges for policymakers to know how to deal with central tendencies in particular circumstances: “
A statistically significant general finding, may often be of little help for a policymaker dealing with a specific problem.”

A way forward?
In a recent Carnegie Foundation piece, my colleague Frank Gavin and former Dean (and former Obama Deputy Secretary of State) Jim Steinberg cautioned that scholars may also have difficulties providing practical advice to policymakers. Thinking about possible scenarios with respect to Iran and its nuclear program, they wrote: 

…we simply cannot know ahead of time, with any usable degree of certainty, what the answers to these questions will be, and therefore what optimal policy will turn out to be. Why? The answer is that none of the tools that social science academics labor so assiduously to develop and refine are capable of providing predictive outcomes with a usable degree of certainty. 

They suggest that the absence of responsibility may encourage academics to be in Tetlock’s terminology “hedgehogs” who know one big thing. There is no price for scholars of being wrong, and big bold singular predictions driven by general models tend to get attention:

Indeed, their ability to command the precious geography of the op-ed page usually turns on the ability to make categorical, rather than contingent assertions.

They suggest a more productive way forward to bring academic expertise to bear on policy would involve the revival of Eisenhower’s Solarium exercise, where different rival theories are discussed and debated in a more staid comparison of alternative scenarios. Leaving aside what contributions academics can make to policy, can we profit by spending some time in the policy world?

Scholars who have an opportunity to see how the policy process actually works will likely be better scholars for it. That may not be true of every scholar, but certainly scholars who study the policy process will learn a tremendous amount.

I also think our students will also profit from the experience by our ability to connect concepts from class to events we have experience firsthand, though the temptation might be to turn classes into policy war stories rather than theoretically relevant anecdotes that illuminate broader processes.

Should we engage policy?
There are still dangers for scholars trying to engage the policy world. The obvious challenge is time management and whether colleagues will appreciate your efforts. Certainly, the judgment of the institute was that doing policy relevant work is an “in addition to” complement to peer-reviewed scholarship rather than an “instead of” substitute. 

Moreover, people seeking to engage the policy world need to be mindful of their aims. Are they seeking headlines or hits, or is policy work part of a higher calling for public service that we should be doing as citizens? 
Pursuing policy relevant work merely to advance oneself is akin to being a celebrity fame seeker. Doing this kind of work for the right reasons may allow us to resist the temptation of saying things just to get in the paper or on the Internet. Editors have a preference for declarative statements that squeeze the nuance out of complex issues, potentially leading scholars to get far ahead of what their evidence shows. If you can’t come back to what you said or wrote and remain proud about the quality of your work or judgment, then your longevity and influence on the discipline and policy will likely be limited.

Another risk for scholars is the temptation to tailor research to fit the preferences of the policy community. While adjusting scholarship to be more policy relevant is the point, scholars may compromise their objectivity and rigor by saying what they think policymakers want to hear. There is no easy solution to prevent scholars from becoming guns for hire, other than the realization that each of us will be judged by our peers on the quality of our work. I doubt that scholars can retain their credibility in either camp if they cultivate schizophrenic personas, saying one thing in the academic world and writing something quite different for policy. That just seems like a bad idea.

I entered political science with normative aspirations for addressing the great problems of our age. I grew to appreciate the benefits of an academic perch for being able to study the issues I cared about. Ultimately, I don’t think we have to give up our aspirations for making the world a better place, and I would feel diminished as a person if my work was cut off from that wellspring of inspiration that got me interested in international relations in the first place.

* This year’s IPSI participants included: 
Séverine AutesserreSarah BushJeff Colgan, Courtenay Conrad, Martin Edwards, Tanisha Fazal, Ryan Grauer, Seva Gunitskiy, Caroline Hartzell, Nathan Paxton, Robert Reardon, Elizabeth Saunders, and Jeff Taliaferro.

© 2017 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑