Stephen M. Walt

What to do on your summer vacation

For years a number of political scientists have been complaining about the propensity for scholars to study topics that are of little real-world value or of interest only to a handful of fellow scholars. We’ve come to call this the "cult of irrelevance." At the same time, many academics cloud their analyses in obscure jargon ...

GViciano/flickr
GViciano/flickr

For years a number of political scientists have been complaining about the propensity for scholars to study topics that are of little real-world value or of interest only to a handful of fellow scholars. We’ve come to call this the "cult of irrelevance." At the same time, many academics cloud their analyses in obscure jargon or a fog of methodological "sophistication," and rarely bother to offer up translations for the busy policy-maker. To make matters worse, although academics defend the institution of tenure fiercely, most of them do not use the protection it affords to pursue topics that might be politically controversial.

These unfortunate tendencies are not universal, however, and a number of us have tried to address the broader issue in various ways. You can read about the general subject here, here, here, or here. In that spirit, I’m also happy to pass on the news that a group of political scientists have organized a week-long summer institute designed to tackle the problem head-on. Under the guidance of Bruce Jentleson of Duke, Steve Weber of UC-Berkeley, and James Goldgeier of George Washington, a new International Summer Policy Institute will "deliver an intensive curriculum designed to teach participants how to develop and articulate their research for a policy audience, what policymakers are looking for when they look to IR scholarship, whom to target when sharing research, and which tools and avenues of dissemination are appropriate." The Institute is part of a larger effort to "bridge the gap" between academia and policy, and you can find out more about its activities here.

Needless to say, I think this is a worthy enterprise. Together with efforts like the Tobin Project, it may encourage more academics to focus their research efforts on policy-relevant topics and teach them how to communicate their results in ways that policymakers will find more accessible. The point here, by the way, is not to "dumb down" scholarship or to imitate the plethora of partisan think tanks now located inside the Beltway. Academic scholars should be independent researchers first and foremost, and seekers of truth above all. But the topics that they choose to address can be chosen to illuminate important policy issues more directly, and devoting some time to figuring out how to communicate their results more broadly would surely be a good thing.

What is also needed is a change in academic practice, including the criteria that are used to make key hiring and promotion decisions. The standards by which we assess scholarly value are not divinely ordained or established by natural law; they are in fact "socially constructed" by the discipline itself. In other words, we collectively decide what sorts of work to valorize and what sorts of achievement to reward. If university departments placed greater weight on teaching, on contributions to applied public policy, on public outreach, and on a more diverse range of publishing venues — including journals of opinion, trade publishers and maybe even blogs–then individual scholars would quickly adapt to these new incentives and we would attract a somewhat different group of scholars over time. If university departments routinely stopped the "tenure clock" for younger academics who wanted to do a year of public service, that would enable them to gain valuable real-world experience without short-changing their long-term academic futures. It would also send the message that academia shouldn’t cut itself off from the real world. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if deans, department chairs, and university presidents welcomed controversy, encouraged intellectual diversity, and defended the slaying of sacred cows. As I’ve said before, academics really shouldn’t count it a great achievement when students have no interest in their classes, and when people outside the ivory tower have no interest in what we have to say.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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