Tag: policy relevance

Thoughts on making the most of APSA for the alt-ac attendee

Graduation Cap and Diploma on White with Soft Shadow.

C/o Bluestocking, 2008 Uyen Le

APSA is nearly upon us again, and I thought I should write something profession-related as I got back into blogging. My first thought was to make fun of annoying questions, but I already did that (six years ago…but still relevant). And there is a lot of advice floating around for grad students or others on the market. Instead, I thought I’d focus on an area where my experience is more unique: navigating academic conferences while working outside academia (or alt-ac*) and–in my case–trying to get back in.

For just a little context, I am currently in a tenure-track job but had always been on the policy-academia border. I worked in the defense industry in DC before grad school, and continued working part-time after I started (as I attended school in DC). I then switched to the think tank world (working part-time with the Pew Research Center). After graduating, I went on the academic job market but ended up getting policy jobs–first with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Responses to Terrorism (START) and then full-time with Pew. After a few years out, I decided to try the academic job market again, and got my current job.

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National Security Generalists and Learning the Lessons From Lost Wars

A friend posted this piece on facebook: “Why Nerds Should Not Be In Charge of War.”  It draws from the new PBS Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to argue that it happened because of the prominent role played by “generalists.”  Yes, Robert McNamara and his gang of Whiz Kids are mighty arrogant, and they have much blame to share for the war.  Indeed, McNamara, unlike certain other arrogant former SecDefs, has spent the time since trying to grapple with what he had wrought.  There is something to the idea that we need folks involved who are regional experts.  Indeed, there has been much debate about whether we political scientists did area studies wrong by insisting on generalizable theory and advanced methods.

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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?

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Blogging the Gap

Yesterday, I had the chance to participate in the Bridging the Gap workshop led by Bruce Jentleson.  It is an effort every summer to help younger scholars figure out how to engage the policy world in a variety of ways, including figuring out how to write and publish op-eds, how to get into government for short periods of time (like the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship that changed my career/life), how to engage think tanks and more.

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Ready for the Weekend Quasi-Linkage: Are Political Scientists Useless?

Steve and I had a good Twitter exchange with Tom Ricks about whether or not political science is useless to policymakers, particularly quantitative work and modeling. I thought this exchange was funny because today I saw that Colin Kahl, friend and more importantly, a damn good political scientist, was just appointed as Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor.

Ricks’ broadside has provoked a few choice blog posts from Steve, Paul Staniland, Tom Pepinsky, and Henry Farrell. (Dan Drezner also had a good one on the topic from 2012). I also thought Ezra Klein’s column from a week or so ago on why he finds academic political science so useful for understanding American politics to be in the same vein. In different forms, they all chide Ricks for ignoring a host of new books and articles that speak to important real world issues.

Ricks references a good forthcoming ISQ article by Mike Desch and Paul Avey that includes elite survey data where policymakers express rather dismissive attitudes towards political scientists, particularly of the quantitative and game theoretic variety.

Having attended the Minerva Initiative conference last week where all of the newly funded projects were given a few minutes to talk about our research, I know that the Pentagon is interested in sophisticated modeling efforts, including game theoretic work, geospatial mapping, MRI analysis, large N work, and other methods. So, what gives?

A number of people in the academy are worried about the disjuncture between academia and political science. Having participated in several Bridging the Gap conferences, I know how hard political scientists are working to try to be relevant and thoughtful. This is also something that Carnegie and other foundations are supporting to get right. They just announced a $1 million award to former colleagues Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg on this effort to improve the relevance of academic work. In the same announcement, Carnegie also awarded a big award to the University of Denver on non-violent protest movements as well as other grantees.

Some people conflate qualitative and historical analysis with policy relevance and large N work and modeling as theoretical and un-related to real world problems. While I’m largely qualitative, I recognize that there is quite a lot of good quantitative work to be done, and that even if the Big Data revolution is overblown, it has enormous implications for both scholarship and practice. We need to move beyond just the simple critique of the irrelevance of political science based on methods. Instead, we should look at whether the questions people ask are important ones, and if political scientists are able to communicate their findings in a way that is accessible and relevant to policymakers. With efforts like The Monkey Cage, Political Violence at a Glance, The Duck, and others, you can’t say we aren’t trying!


Human Rights Research and Researchers in IR: Are We REALLY that Odd?

Before APSA last week, I had the privilege of attending a small conference put on the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William and Mary.  The conference was a chance for researchers in different research areas to write about the policy-relevance of their issue area and compare research and researchers in their area to the larger IR community.  It relates to the discussion going on the last couple of weeks on ISQ’s blog.  All of the participants had the opportunity to use the TRIP project data on journal articles in top-IR journals and survey data from IR researchers around the world.  I learned lot about how interactions with the policy/practitioner community differ across issue areas.

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The Great Poli Sci Portfolio

In the dustup produced by Nick Kristof, one of the basic misperceptions keeps being repeated–that the American Political Science Review is not influential or readable enough.  The job of the APSR is not to be read by policy-makers but by political scientists.  Really?  Yes.  Let me explain.

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NYT and Poli Sci Public Engagement

The ISA mess is the gift that keeps on giving.  Now Nicholas Kristof has written a piece in his NYT column that “addresses” the controversy.  The problem is that the column is out of date.  Not just in focusing on the ISA proposal that has been beaten back by the forces of reason (that would be me and other bloggers?), but that other canards get lumped in.  While some noted bloggers have been denied tenure, it is highly unlikely that their blogging did them in.  Indeed, there is more pressure by lots of folks (presidents, provosts, deans, grant agencies) to do more outreach.

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The Numbers Do Not Lie: People Don’t Like Numbers

Perhaps the first Monkey Cage post at the Washington Post presents some numbers that show that policy-makers tend not to like the higher tech kind of poli sci (or theory)  We knew this from previous TRIP reports and other studies, but still it is important to consider such stuff, especially given that quantitative work (in IR, anyway) is now about as prevalent as non-quant work.

One might be tempted to argue that we should stop or reduce quant work given that a key audience may not like it so much.  My first reaction was to think about baseball.  The rise of statistics to evaluate players–as depicted semi-accurately in the Moneyball book, a bit less accurately in the movie–was resisted by those in the game.  That did not mean that the numbers did not capture key dynamics.  Indeed,  knowing the results proved to be quite helpful to those who were willing to learn or hire people who understood them.

As someone who is far more comfortable with qualitiative work but has published some quant, I tend not to be as fearful of the rise of the (quant) machines as others but also see the point that the quant work has its limits.  In all things, I am a big fan of portolios and of diversity.  Just as professional baseball still relies on scouts to complement the numbers, the professionals in politics need both numbers and stories, quant and qual analyses.  After all, these politicians who do not like to read numbers sure as hell rely on them as they run for office via polling and market analyses.  Seems to me that they should keep on relying on numbers when they govern.

So, again, the answer is not to run against the latest in political science but find ways to make it digestible to both policy folks and general publics.  That this post appeared in the Monkey Cage as it starts its new life as part of the Washington Post is then especially appropriate.  The MC’s aim is to do precisely that–take poli sci and present it in ways that publics and policy folks can get easily without mastering the methods behind the analyses.  I do think that policy folks also will have increasingly stats-literate folks working for them, just as baseball and basketball teams hired the whiz kids who never played professionally but provided much insights with their scientific study of the games.

We can continue to think of ways to improve our dissemination of the knowledge we create.  Sorry, the grant I am writing this month requires a knowledge mobilization plan so this jargon is inescapable right now.  But I don’t mind thinking about such stuff–if I want public money (Canadian money in this case), I should and do accept the responsibility of trying to figure out how I will share my findings beyond the academy.  This responsibility does not shape the methods I choose to study the stuff, but it does mean I will take seriously how I plan to communicate what I learn.


Professing and the Policy World

There is so much criticism of the academic enterprise these days, asserting that professors are too focused on research and not enough on teaching and not enough on relevance to the policy world. These critiques are hardly new, but bear more weight in a time of austerity. It is easy to point to some work that seems hardly relevant and some professors who seem least interested in engaging the “real world,” but I am constantly reminded of the opposite—professors who become deeply engaged in policy-making one way or another.

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Quote of the Day


In short, there’s no reason at all to consider microeconomics the “real” economics and macroeconomics some kind of flaky impostor. Yes, micro is a lot more rigorous — but if it’s rigorously wrong, who cares?