Tag: policy

The Value Alignment Problem’s Problem

Having recently attended a workshop and conference on beneficial artificial intelligence (AI), one of the overriding concerns is how to design beneficial AI.  To do this, the AI needs to be aligned with human values, and as such is known, pace Stuart Russell, as the “Value Alignment Problem.”  It is a “problem” in the sense that however one creates an AI, the AI may try to maximize a value to the detriment of other socially useful or even noninstrumental values given the way one has to specify a value function to a machine.

Continue reading

Non-Academic Job Searches in DC – What to Know

Many graduate students are expanding their job searches outside the academy.  As an advisor, I’m horribly underprepared at offering job advice outside of the academic job market – besides work you can get off of Craigslist, I’ve never held a real job.  Recently, I had a student come to me with questions about finding a job in the DC policy world.  I asked my great friend (and former student) Kate Kidder for her thoughts, which she agreed to allow me to post at the Duck.

For academic jobs, I really like Michael Flynn‘s thoughts at The Quantitative Peace.

Kate’s Advice:

Continue reading

The Olympics Make You Care Less About Milwaukee

When Usain competes, U.S. aid plummets.

 At Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Beast, Patrick Appel offers a few hypotheses about why Americans seem to care less about the killing of Sikhs than the killing of moviegoers, including the observation that the timing of the Milwaukee shootings so soon after the Batman massacre have left many pundits unwilling to talk further about gun control for fear of sounding redundant. Appel also hypothesizes that low levels of media coverage may be due to the Aurora killings haven taken place on a slow news day while the Milwaukee killings happened during the Olympics. Robert Wright in The Atlantic proposes a potentially complementary hypothesis: that the mass American public has cared less about Milwaukee than Aurora because of a sense that the Sikhs are outsiders while the theatergoers were representative.

Research by Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg (ungated) suggests that at least two of these guesses may be right. Eisensee and Stromberg studied the effect of news coverage of more than 5,000 natural disasters on policymakers’ responses to see whether policy responses were driven by media coverage or policy rationales. Their study hinges on a fundamental truth about the media business: during large-scale events such as the Olympics, television networks, which have a fixed time budget (even a 24-hour-network can’t broadcast more than 24 hours a day), have less time to devote to unplanned events like disasters because of the time they spend on the scheduled spectacle. As Eisensee and Stromberg write,

If two equally newsworthy disasters occur, we would expect the disaster occurring when there is a great deal of other breaking news around would have a lower chance of being covered by the news than the disaster occur- ring when there is little other news around. This crowding out is probably particularly strong for television news broadcasts that are usually of a fixed length (half an hour for ABC, CBS and NBC, and one hour for CNN).

If policymakers’ responses are driven by some inherent logic of disasters and policy rationales, then the magnitude of their reactions should be unrelated to the availability of news coverage; if policymakers instead only act when the public is watching, then their responses to similar disasters should

Their results are startling–and dismaying. U.S. policymakers react to publicity, not severity.

First, media coverage is driven not by the severity of a disaster but by factors such as how people are killed and which people are killed:

News biases relief in favor of certain disaster types and regions: for every person killed in a volcano disaster, 40,000 people must die in a drought to reach the same probability of media coverage. Similarly, it requires 40 times as many killed in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as for a disaster in Eastern Europe of similar type and magnitude.

Second, the effects of media coverage are noticeable and substantively important:

We find that natural disasters are more likely to receive relief if they occur when the pressure for news time in the U.S. network news broadcasts is low. Quantitatively, disasters are, on average, around eight percent more likely to receive relief if they occur when news pressure takes on its highest values than when taking its lowest, and five percent less likely to receive relief during the Olympics than at other times. Using another metric, to have the same chance of receiving relief, the disaster occurring during the highest news pressure must have six times as many casualties as the disaster occurring when news pressure is at its lowest, all else equal.

It also turns out that the Olympics are the most important stories generating “news pressure”–the crowding out of foreign and disaster news–on the U.S. media, much more than the World Series, the Oscars, and the Super Bowl. Other sources of news, pressure, such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict, perform similarly.

Eisensee and Stromberg conclude by asserting that although their story focused on domestic media coverage’s effects on U.S. policymakers’ efforts abroad, “it seems likely that the underlying mechanisms would be equally active for domestic policy.”

The Sexual Scandal Factor in Military Policy Making

Do scandals- particularly the kind that receive international attention- inspire progressive gender policies? While there is no conclusive research on this question, there are indicators that sexual violence scandals may be as important as public opinion or operational changes in influencing policy change in the military (perhaps more so).

My prediction– you can quote me on this- is that the current onslaught of sexual violence scandals in the US military will provide the tipping point needed to remove the combat exclusion. Do I think this is the answer to the problem of one in three female service members facing rape during their service? Absolutely not. Will it be a temporary distraction to a widespread systematic problem? Absolutely- just take a look at some earlier cases.  

There is almost no comparative research shedding light on why 14 of the world’s militaries have decided to remove the exclusion. BUT, if you look at each country case by case a startling pattern emerges: major sexual violence scandals rocked many of these countries in the period immediately preceding the removal of the exclusion. For example, New Zealand didn’t officially remove the exclusion until 2001, only a few years after a scathing investigation indicated that 42 sex charges had been laid with the navy within five years. Canada removed the combat exclusion as a result of a Human Rights Tribunal decision in 1989. However, leading up to the decision there were widespread accounts of sexual violence plaguing the services. This culminated in a late 1990s Maclean’s magazine detailed expose on sexual violence, including evidence of multiple rapes at gunpoint and widespread acceptance of sexual harassment. Australia is the latest country to remove the exclusion, making the decision only last September. This policy change came on the heals of the famous “skype scandal,” which saw an Australian Defence Force Academy cadet broadcast, without consent, consensual sex with a fellow cadet. This incident proved to be the tip of the iceberg as evidence of “decades of abuse” continue to come to light in recent reports.

How can one account for an international sex scandal as a contributing factor to major policy changes? What are the implications if some gender policy changes are “shush” policies designed to detract from institutional sexism?

Only time can answer these questions- and tell if my prediction is correct. But with new reports of sexual harassment and violence within the US military emerging almost daily- including headlines declaring “Rape on US bases left unchecked,” and “Why rapists in the military get away with it“- and with the documentary “The Invisible War” drawing international audience’s attention to the problem of rape within the forces, ignoring the problem is no longer an option. Removing the combat exclusion as a distraction from institutionalized and endemic sexual violence would be the right policy for the wrong reason. The problem does not call for adding more women, or allowing women to ‘do more’ within the forces; rather, it requires a change in sexist attitudes and behaviors. This will involve far work than a single policy change. 

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 ↑