Daniel W. Drezner

Is the scholar-policy gap really so big?

MacArthur Foundation president Robert Gallucci has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a topic that feels juuuuuust a bit familiar.  Here’s how he opens it: Something is seriously wrong in the relationship between universities and the policy community in the field of international relations. The worlds of policy making and academic research ...

MacArthur Foundation president Robert Gallucci has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a topic that feels juuuuuust a bit familiar.  Here’s how he opens it:

Something is seriously wrong in the relationship between universities and the policy community in the field of international relations. The worlds of policy making and academic research should be in constant, productive conversation, and scholars and researchers should be an invaluable resource for policy makers, but they are not.

One hears perennial laments from those in academe that their valuable work is being ignored by policy makers. And, on the other hand, policy makers complain they can get nothing useful from the academy. They may all be right.

Now your humble blogger has explored this topic again and again and again and again and again.  I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that while a gap still exists between these two worlds, the bigger gap is between the perception of people like Gallucci and actual reality.  Also, to be blunt about it, I also suspect that no one will actually say this to Gallucci’s face, because, well, he’s got the money.  Why argue against a gravy train? 

Consider the following: 

1)  There is pretty clear evidence that academics are becoming more copacetic with the media through which policy advice can be communicated.  It’s also worth noting that two of Time’s top 25 blogs this year are run by political scientists *COUGH* self-promotion *COUGH*. 

2)  We are beginning to see routinized channels through which academics are learning how to affect the policy world. 

3)  On the policy side of the equation, Joshua Foust notes that the Ph.D. is both highly valued and increasingly de rigeur inside the Beltway.  Whether that’s a good thing or not is a topic for a later post, but Foust’s observation cuts against Gallucci’s assertions.

So I think Gallucci’s claim is exaggerated.  But what’s interesting is why he believes that the theory/policy gap has gotten worse: 

There has been a theoretical turn across the social sciences and humanities that has cut off academic discourse from the way ordinary people and working professionals speak and think. The validity and elegance of the models have become the focus, rather than whether those models can be used to understand real-world situations. Conferences and symposia are devoted to differences in theoretical constructs; topics are chosen for research based not on their importance but on their accessibility to a particular methodology. Articles and books are published to be read, if at all, only by colleagues who have the same high regard for methodology and theory and the same disregard for practice.

Look, I’m not going to deny that there’s a lot of abstruse research in the academy filled with lots of seemingly impenetrable jargon.  That said, I would humbly suggest that the pattern of recent published work does not match Gallucci’s observation.  I would also note that it is way too simplistic to divide political science research into "policy relevant" and "not policy relevant."  

There is still a gap between scholars and policymakers.  But Gallucci’s essay suggests a bad situaion that’s getting worse, whereas I see a mediocre situation that’s trending in a positive situaton.  

Still, let me also confess that I might be a victim of sample bias here.  Over time I’ve found greater and not fewer pathways that connect scholarly international relations research and real-world policymaking.  That might be because I’ve got a bit more girth gravitas than I did a decade ago. 

So I’ll ask this question to the crowd:  do Gallucci’s assertions ring true?  What do you think? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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