Daniel W. Drezner

So you want to be policy relevant….

Starting tomorrow, your humble blogger will be attending the International Studies Association annual meeting in New Orleans.  The theme for this year is "Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners."  I’ll be on one of the theme panels.  In that vein, let me relate a parable fI witnessed a few weeks back.  I was at ...

Starting tomorrow, your humble blogger will be attending the International Studies Association annual meeting in New Orleans.  The theme for this year is "Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners."  I’ll be on one of the theme panels. 

In that vein, let me relate a parable fI witnessed a few weeks back.  I was at a small conference devoted to the idea of getting scholars and policymakers in the same room to talk about U.S. policy towards a Great Power That Shall Remain Nameless.  The idea was that policymakers could highlight issues that professors might have overlooked and vice versa.

Everything was going along swimmingly until one of the policymakers in the room complained that some of the academic memos that had been prepared for the conference were too long to be read by policymakers — which was true, except that wasn’t the purpose of these memos.  In response, a Smart and Well Respected Political Scientist went off on a serious and righteous rant.  Why didn’t policymakers or staffers in DC actually read what experts thought about a particular issue?  It wasn’t just that political scientists were being put on the sidelines — we were  being completely ignored. 

Well, this provoked a rollicking good debate, and afterwards, many of us gathered around the Smart and Well Respected Political Scientist to applaud those remarks.  We then chatted about how political scientists could enter the policymaking fray with a bit more vim and vigor.  Someone suggested that this might be easier if younger scholars felt that they could engage in public debate without the fear of disapproval from the profession.  At which point the Smart and Well Respected Political Scientist said something to the effect of, "Oh, no.  Once someone has tenure, and has a full publishing pedigree, then they can start making a few public pronouncements."

And that, my friends, is a big reason why there’s a gap between policymakers and scholars. 

Academics are creatures of habit.  Political scientists are socialized to focus exclusively on peer-reviewed publications and writing only for fellow academics during their formative years in the profession.  If they’re lucky, it will take most political scientists anywhere from 10-15 years to earn a Ph.D. and a tenured position.  It’s ridiculous to expect them to suddenly exercise mental muscles that have atrophied for decades.  That’s like asking a world-class basketball player to suddenly take up baseball again because they loved the sport as a kid. 

This situation is also counterproductive to the policymaking community.  Senior scholars have obvious advantages in lending an ear to policymakers — greater experience, a deeper familiarity with the topic, etc.  That said, junior scholars and even graduate students also have advantages.  They’re usually hyperaware of recent trends in the literature.  They write and read more quickly.  They have the flexibility of mind to connect seemingly unrelated topics.  They might retain some familiarity with non-jargony words.  Because of their minimal stature, peers will be far more willing — gleeful, even — to tell them when they are full of s**t.  This doesn’t mean they’re going to be better at doing policy-relevant research, but they do possess comparative advantages that harried, administration-burdened senior scholars might lack.

Let’s be clear — political scientists are not the only ones to blame on this issue.  This isn’t the only reason for the gap between policymakers and professors.  And there are great and good reasons for academics to avoid excessive coziness with policymakers.  Still, until and unless political science does not frown upon non-tenured scholars offering a voice in public policy debates — be it through advising policymakers, writing op-eds, or blogging — then the Smart and Well Respected Political Scientist will continue to be frustrated.

As I’ve said recently, for reasons beyond our control, policymakers are currently more interested in what political scientists have to say.  It would be nice if my profession knew how to respond. 

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