The Beltway vs. the Ivory Tower

Why academics and policymakers don't get along.

ARLINGTON, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Aerial photo of the Washington Memorial with the Capitol in the background in Washington D.C. on September 26, 2003. (Photo by Andy Dunaway/USAF via Getty Images)

Scholars and policymakers agree that Washington could benefit from knowledge that too often remains locked away in the ivory tower. When academics were asked in 2008 how they should contribute to the policymaking process, their top four answers were: as creators of new information/knowledge (72 percent), informal advisors (49 percent), trainers of policymakers (29 pecent), and formal participants (24 percent). Only 3 percent thought scholars "should not be involved" in the policymaking process. When practitioners were asked a similar question in 2011, they were even more enthusiastic about having scholars as informal advisors (74 percent), trainers of policymakers (46 percent) and formal participants (34 percent). Fewer than 5 percent of practitioners believed that scholars "should not be involved" in policy making.

Where scholars and policymakers diverge is in their assessments of how best to do social science. Policymakers tend to favor qualitative research approaches that are losing popularity in the academy. Nearly 66 percent believe that "area studies" are "very useful" to policymakers, with similar percentages saying the same about "contemporary case studies" (60 percent), "policy analysis" (53 percent), and "historical case studies" (54 percent). Conversely, cutting- edge scholarly methodologies such as "quantitative analysis" (18 percent), "formal models" (4 percent) and "theoretical analysis" (5 percent) find far fewer takers in the policy realm. Scholars concur that these types of research are "very useful" to policymakers, (area studies – 56 percent, contemporary case studies – 50 percent, policy analysis – 54 percent), and they appear equally skeptical as the policymakers of the utility of quantitative analysis (19 percent) and formal models (4 percent).

But that’s not what they publish: Increasingly, highly quantitative work has become the standard in IR scholarship over the past 10 to 15 years, and in some areas of IR, such as international political economy, more than 90 percent of all articles now rely upon statistical analysis. Beginning in 2002, statistical analysis became the preferred empirical method in IR journal articles. So, despite similar thinking along the Beltway and in the Ivory Tower about the kinds of knowledge that will help policymakers — and despite the qualitative nature of most IR scholars’ own work — academics don’t always practice what they preach.

One major challenge, then, is to find a common language that bridges the chasm between the Ivory Tower and the Beltway. Scholars recognize that this chasm exists, and left to their own devices they would do work more amenable to a policy audience. When asked if they would prefer a "higher wall of separation" or "more links between the academic and policy communities, a stunning 92 percent of scholars opt for more links. One has to assume, given the paucity of these links, that for many professional incentives deter bridge building in their published research.

Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves Professor of Government and International Relations and the Chair of the Department of Government at the College of William & Mary.

Michael J. Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton professor of international relations and director of the Global Research Institute at the College of William & Mary. Twitter: @MikeTierneyIR

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