If a scholar makes a prediction in a forest of analysts, does anybody listen?

A recurring theme of this blog has been the relationship between academics and policymakers.  What, if anything should academics have on offer?  What should they have to offer?  Stanford’s alumni magazine offers an interesting take on this question, asking six scholars and policymakers affiliated with the university about, "what lessons they drew from conflicts they studied or ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

A recurring theme of this blog has been the relationship between academics and policymakers.  What, if anything should academics have on offer?  What should they have to offer? 

A recurring theme of this blog has been the relationship between academics and policymakers.  What, if anything should academics have on offer?  What should they have to offer? 

Stanford’s alumni magazine offers an interesting take on this question, asking six scholars and policymakers affiliated with the university about, "what lessons they drew from conflicts they studied or had a role in, and how they relayed their insights to the people in charge."

The most fascinating anecdote comes from Priya Satia

In 2007, the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence invited Satia to address staffers from more than a dozen different intelligence organizations about Middle East counterinsurgency. She spoke about the risks of groupthink, and the price British and Iraqis paid for that. But the message seemed to pass people by.

They wanted to hear more about T.E. Lawrence, she says, not sounding very surprised. “The kind of people who get into intelligence have been inspired by the T.E. Lawrences—they staked their careers on having some kind of secret role in the making of history, and when you tell them that’s not going to work, I mean, what are they supposed to do with that information?”

I assume Satia must have been talking to the operations people, because I find it hard to believe that analysts are really all that inspired by T.E. Lawrence. 

That quibble aside, Satia raises an interesting point.  Many social scientists focus on the myriad structural reasons why things are the way they are.  Policymakers believe they can help shape the way things are.  The last thing they often want to hear is why their ideas won’t work.  And while scholars can often explain why an idea won’t work, they are often at a loss to offer a superior, politically viable alternative. 

This might be an "irreconcilable" problem, but I’ll leave that question to the commentators. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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