Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Policy Engagement* (*But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

Earlier this year, our team at the Sié Center at the University of Denver announced our program on the three R’s of Academic-Policy Engagement (or R3, if you prefer): Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility. Generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, our program is intended to both study and help train early-career scholars around the ethical issues that arise when academics—who face ever-increasing pressures to demonstrate the broader social impacts of their research—attempt to interface with policy audiences. Broadly speaking, our scholarly community is doing a good job of training scholars to engage: initiatives like the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG) have been massively successful in demystifying the mechanics of engagement: how to write for policy audiences, give good interviews, etc. BtG now has over 100 alums who are doing an excellent job of making IR scholarship legible for policy and general audiences.

This is mostly to the good. But in the field of international relations, engagement has not always been an unalloyed blessing or without controversy, both from the perspectives of academics and policymakers, but also from affected populations. Even well-intentioned policy engagement can entail ethical dilemmas and unforeseen or unintended consequences. From Thomas Schelling’s advocacy of strategic bombing in Vietnam to academic economists’ advocacy for rapid market reforms (what some called “shock therapy”) and the much-criticized deployment of academic researchers as part of the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see how researcher engagement in policy debates and implementation can carry risks. These risks force academics to confront the question of whether to engage in the first place. To quote Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom:

How do academics navigate these risks?

Much of the time, we’re navigating without a map or a compass. PhD students and early career academics in international relations receive little if any formal mentorship on professional ethics, particularly when compared to other engaged professions like law or social work. Policy engagement is still viewed with skepticism in many international relations departments. Given this, many early-career scholars may be reticent to raise these issues with their mentors—and their mentors, many having not been involved in bridging activities themselves, may not be in a position to offer guidance if asked.

I was lucky. I had a super engaged mentor—Steph Haggard—who opened doors, made introductions, and helped me strategize about engagement with policy audiences. But more importantly, he helped me think about navigating ethically ambiguous situations and helped me clean my wounds after inevitable mistakes. I have colleagues both present and past—Debbi AvantErica Chenoweth, Adam Posen, and Mike Tierney, just to name a few—on whom I can count for guidance or at the very least a sympathetic ear or a word of advice.

Not everyone is this lucky. 

This is precisely why we created the Anonymous Advice on the Ethics of Engagement platform. The Anonymous Advice on Responsible Engagement platform digitally convenes a wide-ranging panel of experienced policy-engaged scholars from the field of international relations to respond to anonymous questions about academic-policy engagement. This interactive resource is meant to provide candid advice and build a knowledge base to assist academics in interacting responsibly and constructively with governmental and nongovernmental policy actors at all stages of research, from developing policy-relevant questions to disseminating findings to policy audiences.

We hope this board presents opportunities for frank, no-nonsense talk about the sometimes thorny issues that arise when academics attempt to engage with policy audiences and processes. It is an experiment and a leap of faith: we welcome discussion about the platform itself and feedback on how it might be made most helpful and useful. Already, we have posted questions that can give readers a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish:

  • What happens when the sponsor of a project is sensitive about a researchers’ conclusions and asks for changes?
  • How do you productively engage with editors that want you to be less caveated and cautious in interpreting your findings in order to paint a clearer picture?
  • Can you accept honoraria or speaker fees from industries and entities you study and still remain impartial?

Providing a safe space to have these discussions is goal. But as important as that goal is, it’s important to establish also want we are nottrying to do: We’re not proclaiming ourselves ethical watchdogs or arbiters of ethical conduct. Many of our lessons have been gleaned from the school of hard knocks. Instead of shunning discussions of our own challenges and failures, we hope others can learn from them. In our PhD training, we do this all the time: using our own experiences and mistakes—and pointing them out in others’ research—as pedagogical tools. While mentoring around ethical engagement practices, we wish to do the same in a way that preserves the best elements of anonymity while leveraging hard-earned expertise. We’re trying to catalyze conversation. This is one way among many.In our current moment, with academics questioning the ethics of engagement with the US government, the need for these types of conversations is pressing. We hope to convene some of those conversations, and help the next generation of scholars engage with perspective and confidence.

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IR, it’s time to talk about what the “multiple comparisons issue” really is

As a reviewer and recipient of reviews, I’ve noted a recent trend among IR papers. A study uses cross-national data with regression analysis, and runs multiple models with different variables or sub-sets of the data. Sometimes the results are consistent, sometimes they aren’t. But often a reviewer will object to the study’s validity, pointing to the “multiple comparisons” issue. Multiple comparisons can be a real problem in quantitative IR studies, but I worry we’re mis-diagnosing it.

What do I mean? Imagine we’re writing a paper on interstate conflict. We could measure conflict onset, duration or intensity. We could measure intensity by an ordinal scale, the number of deaths, or other more complicated measures. We could include all dyads, politically-relevant dyads, dyads since 1945, 1989, etc. Ideally these choices would be based on our theory, but our theories are often not specific enough to specify such choices.

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Duck podcast episode 2: Dan Nexon

The second episode of the podcast is now live. Dan and I discuss his recent-is tenure as lead editor at ISQ, insights on the journal article model for career advancement, prophesies for the future of journals in IR, and advice for young(ish?) scholars. The podcast should be available through Apple and Google podcast syndicators, and the RSS feed is https://feed.podbean.com/duckofminerva/feed.xml. As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or on twitter @jarrodnhayes

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A bigger question in the alt-ac debate

I had a kind of unique path to my current tenure-track job, straddling the policy-academia divide. So I’ve followed current discussions on “alt-ac” careers with interest, but found something lacking in them. Nathan Paxton’s recent interview with APSA crystallized that; the bigger question is not how to support alt-ac PhDs but how to counsel people before getting PhDs in the first place.

As I’ve discussed, I sort of followed the “alt-ac” approach in the first part of my career. For those who haven’t seen it, “alt-ac” means “alternative academic,” referring to PhDs who pursue jobs outside of higher education. I worked in DC before grad school, and continued working in “policy” jobs during grad school even as I tried to prepare for an academic career. And I worked in research jobs for several years before becoming a professor.

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All Journals Can, and Should, Provide Decision Letters and Reviewer Reports to Referees

Public Domain — From Pixabay

Note: This is the third post in an occasional series in which I talk about lessons learned (or related stuff) from my time editing International Studies Quarterly. My prior posts focused on “best practices” for writing decision letters (Part I and Part II).

I won’t knowingly review for a journal that doesn’t, as a matter of policy, share anonymized copies of decision letters and reviewer reports with referees.

Once a journal makes a decision and I don’t receive these materials, I usually check to make sure that mistakes weren’t made – that I didn’t accidentally delete the notification or whatever. If there wasn’t a mistake, and the journal confirms that it doesn’t provide referees with the decision letter and other reports, then I’m done. I let the journal know that I won’t review for them again unless and until it changes its policy.

And I do mean “policy.” It’s not enough for the journal to share this material only when prodded.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? There are a number of reasons why, in my opinion, journals are obligated to provide referees with decision letters and reports.

  • It’s the courteous thing to do. Referees invest time and energy into providing feedback; they should know whether and how that feedback mattered to the editorial decision.
  • Knowing how seriously the editors took the referee reports is an important part of the general good of editorial transparency. If the editors want to overrule one or more reviewers, that’s within their rights. But it’s inappropriate to obscure that choice from referees.
  • The field doesn’t invest a lot of time and energy into training people how to be good peer reviewers. Seeing what the editors did with your report, and how other referees assessed the same manuscript, is an important way for scholars to learn how to be better reviewers.
  • Knowing the contents of the editorial decision and the other reports becomes particularly crucial in the context of evaluating a revised and resubmitted paper. Some journals will provide these materials only in the context of an R&R, which is better than not providing them at all – but it’s still inadequate.

I feel so strongly about this that I occasionally make public appeals to other academics to boycott journals that don’t engage in this best practice when it comes to transparency. I made one such call on Facebook and Twitter within the last few days – about the same time that I emailed a journal that hadn’t sent me a decision letter for a manuscript that I’d reviewed. Both an exchange with another former editor and with that journal highlighted something that hadn’t ocurred to me. It isn’t always a matter of not wanting to provide these materials, but not knowing how to do so.

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Has regression analysis shrunk our imaginations?

I realize this is a weird thing for me to ask, since the vast majority of my publications–as well as a few of my works in progress–have relied on regression. But I was wondering this recently based on my own and others’ responses to a new project.

I was presenting qualitative research recently that tried to make the case for ideas mattering in a conventional security studies topic (I’m being intentionally vague). I had a lot of evidence that it did, but the way it mattered was bit more nuanced than the way material factors mattered. An audience member took issue not with my evidence, but with my interpretation; they argued it seems like this shows ideas don’t really matter at all. And I had similar thoughts while writing this paper; not that ideas didn’t matter, but that they fell short of the type of effect we were used to seeing. So I had to decide how defensive I wanted to be in discussing my results.

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Non-Academic Career Paths: The Dirty Secret of Academia?

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the academic job market is tough. Faculty openly warn political science PhD students that there are very few tenure-track jobs available, that they will be competing for those few positions against their most talented and accomplished peers, and that multiple publications and the imprimatur of an Ivy League school have become de facto pre-requisites for the top jobs. The academic job market has changed so rapidly that first-year professors often boast more publications than their tenured senior peers. From their first semester, students are steeped in a culture of scarcity that provokes fear and uncertainty (indeed, it’s not surprising that PhD students suffer from anxiety and depression at “astonishingly high rates”).

Over the past couple of decades, according to NSF’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients, the proportion of PhD holders who find careers in academia has declined precipitously in every field. In 2017, only 23% of PhDs in life and health sciences held a tenure-track or tenured position, down from 33% in 1997. Math and computer science have declined from 49% to 33% over the same period; engineering from 23% to 16%. In the social sciences and psychology, 30% of PhD-holders had a tenured or tenure-track job in 2017. 

Yet given all of this, it is also a universally understood truth that pursuing a non-academic career path as a PhD candidate in political science ought to be treated as a dirty secret, at worst, and a less prestigious alternative to winning a coveted tenure-track post, at best.

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Oh Say Can You Say

You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:

Don’t you stand too close to me

I’m a tiger, not a pussy

Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”.  The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.

It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.

Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?

After all, in the era of diplomatic communication a la “my button is bigger” and “don’t be a fool!”, who can blame Russia for a couple of smudges on the decorum.

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Duck podcast episode 1: Jelena Subotić

The promised reanimation of the Duck of Minerva podcast is now a reality. The incomparable Jelena Subotić stars in our first episode, discussing her forthcoming book Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism. The podcast will hopefully be available on iTunes and Google Play shortly. If you want to listen now, head to https://duckofminerva.podbean.com/e/episode-1-jelena-subotic/ and if you are into RSS feeds, well, here’s that too: https://feed.podbean.com/duckofminerva/feed.xml

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Fieldwork and Your Health

Fieldwork – “leaving one’s home institution in order to acquire data, information, or insights that significantly inform one’s research”

(Kapiszewski, MacLean, and Read 2015: 1)

– has long been a cornerstone of social science research. It is a remarkably diverse enterprise: ‘doing fieldwork’ can mean carrying out archival research, interviews, surveys, focus groups, participant observation, ethnography, or experiments. Fieldwork is also quite valuable: it helps orient scholars toward under-addressed ontological questions, including whether many of the concepts that we routinely study actually exist ‘out there’ in the world, or at least exist in the form that our theories postulate. Fieldwork also enables scholars to take measurement seriously, as sometimes our indicators and scales do not accurately describe or quantify our concepts. Fieldwork, in short, is vital in aligning social science concepts and measurement with the real world that we seek to study.

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Shaming without naming: Why is the international community not calling out human rights violators?

This is a guest post by Theresa Squatrito, Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics, Magnus Lundgren, Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm University, and Thomas Sommerer, Associate Professor at Stockholm University.

On May 6, 2019, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, accused world leaders for failing in their defense of human rights.  World leaders, he claimed, are “weak, short-sighted and mediocre” and remain silent in response to some of today’s worst human rights violators. Given the prominence of human rights in contemporary multilateralism, Zeid’s remarks – if they are correct – would suggest a glaring mismatch between the ambitions and performance of multilateral organizations.

But is he right—do leaders fail to condemn actors for their wrongdoings? Our research which records every instance of public condemnation by 27 international organizations (IOs) between 1980 and 2015, sheds light on this important and pressing question.

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What do new Turkish university campuses have to do with Trump’s Syria decision?

So by this point we all know the big news on Syria. Overnight, Trump announced that–after consulting with Turkish President Erdogan–the US would be pulling troops out of north Syria, giving Turkey freedom to operate. This would likely involve military actions against Kurdish forces there, which Turkey fears are coordinating with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the United States had worked with these Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, so we’re basically abandoning them. Second, this will basically leave ISIS detention camps unguarded, possibly letting this terrorist organization regroup.

A lot has been said on Twitter and elsewhere. This will hurt US credibility. We shouldn’t have open-ended commitments in the Middle East, but this isn’t the way to stop them. This is no way to treat our allies. I encourage you to read others’ takes, and I’m not going to pretend these insights are original to me (but you could read my thread if you want).

But I did start thinking about what Turkey is hoping to accomplish. They’re framing this as a security issue; they want to uproot forces supporting insurgents in their territory. That is understandable, even if we don’t like abandoning Syria’s Kurds. But there are indications this is part of a broader push to increase Turkey’s regional influence.

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Bringing Ontology Back In


Political science has long had debates over methodology – i.e., ways of knowing about the world – but has had fewer over ontology – i.e. what exists in the world. This was noted by Peter Hall in his 2003 book chapter, “Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Research,” but other authors like Colin Hay and Liam Stanley have made the same critique.  

Why is this a problem? Two examples, one personal and one not:

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On Being a Scholar-Activist

This is a guest post from Prof. M. Victoria Pérez-Ríos. Pérez-Ríos holds a PhD in Political Science from The Graduate Center, CUNY (City University of New York); and graduated from the Law School of Saragossa, Spain. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at the Social Science Department at LaGuardia Community College. Her research interests include civil rights, accountability & counterterrorism. She is currently writing a manuscript on memorials. Follow her at @victoriahhrr.

This post is based on an ISA 2019 panel on scholar-activism. We invite others to contribute to what we hope will be a wider series of blog posts on what it means to different faculty. Why do you think it is important to be both a scholar and activist (or do you disagree)? Look for the series with the hashtag #ScholarActivism

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A SCHOLAR-ACTIVIST?

This question made me think about what I understand by being a scholar. In my case scholarship has to seek the truth but not in a vacuum; it has to be transmitted to others and this is done through our peers and our students. As a result, I consider myself, foremost, a teacher. And, can I, as a teacher, not worry about, examine, and try to find solutions to unfairness in the world? As Paolo Freire explains, “[P]roblem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality… strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality.” Read: Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Moreover, in order to excel as a teacher, I need to be a life-long student.

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Climate change and the mission of higher education

On October 2, I sat in the audience of the first of six public events in what appears to be MIT’s semester of climate change. Introducing the great and good of climate science, MIT president Rafael Reif made a comment that struck me. To paraphrase, he argued (or at least I think he did, I was grading at the same time) that in an era of diminished federal and state funding for research, it is incumbent on universities to seek out funds to support climate research from private actors. Hard to argue with this statement, and yet…it seems to narrow the agency of universities to figuring out the best places to get money. In the aftermath of the Epstein mess, the perils of such a course are obvious.

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Want to fix peer review? Standardize appeals

It’s happened to all of us. You get that email “Decision on Manuscript…,” open it with a bit of trepidation, just to find a (hopefully) politely worded rejection from the editor. Sometimes this is justified. Other times, however, the rejection is due to the legendary “Reviewer #2,” a cranky, ill-informed, hastily written rant against your paper that is not at all fair. The details can vary–they don’t like your theoretical approach, don’t understand the methods, are annoyed you didn’t cite them–but the result is the same: thanks to a random draw from the editor’s reviewers list you’ve got to move on.

We all seem to agree this is a problem. Peer review is finicky, and often relies on gate-keepers who can fail to objectively assess work. The pressure to publish for junior faculty and grad students is immense. And editors are over-worked and overwhelmed. Dan Nexon provided a great service recently by writing a series of posts on his experience at International Studies Quarterly. This gave a lot of insight into this often opaque process, and got me thinking about what to do with the above situation.

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A rabbit hole of links on Impeachment

This post will be quick for me to write, but may suck up the rest of your morning. caveat lector.

Rachel Navarre—my friend from grad school, who works at Bridgewater State—compiled what was then an up to date collection of links on Impeachment. As she notes, keeping up with the latest developments is a full time job, and most of us already have full time jobs. But she has links to background as well as some of the most recent developments.

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Even More Assholery: Is Seeking Payment for Protection New?

This is a guest post from Paul Poast, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Earlier this spring, Poast wrote a post about the Asshole Theory of US Foreign Policy and the structural conditions that may facilitate the United States playing the role of a jerk on the international stage. In part 2, we embedded Poast’s thread on President Trump’s gauche offer to buy Greenland from Denmark.

In part 3, Poast reflects on President Trump’s talk about extracting payment from Saudi Arabia for protection in light of previous burden-sharing episodes such as the first Gulf War. This is another embedded thread so you may have to click on the image to read the whole thread.

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Can researchers be both scholars and activists?

This is a call for a new series that grows out of a panel held at ISA earlier this spring. We have a few posts in process that come from participants on that panel, but we want to open it up to other contributors under the hashtag #ScholarActivism.

Questions that you could explore include:

  • What’s your idea of the appropriate balance between scholarship and activism?
  • What’s been your experience?
  • Does one’s activism potentially serve as grist for critiques that academics are indoctrinating students?
  • Is activism different from policy engagement?

We welcome your thoughts on these questions and others.

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