'Finding Common Cause'

New book argues that benefits of fostering better relationships between academics and policy makers in international affairs are underestimated.

January 22, 2015

Despite a shared interest in foreign relations, international affairs scholars and policy makers operate in different spheres, separated by distinct goals and measures of success. Better connections between these worlds of thought and action can lead to better public policy, according to a new book. 

Scholars, Policymakers & International Affairs: Finding Common Cause (Johns Hopkins University Press) covers the obstacles of bridging that gap and offers examples of when it was successfully narrowed. The book, edited by Abraham Lowenthal and Mariano Bertucci, is a collection of 15 chapters written by a various policy makers and scholars with policy experience about what has worked in the past and what hasn’t.

Lowenthal is professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and president emeritus of the Pacific Council on International Policy. He’s the founding director of the Inter-American Dialogue and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. Bertucci is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University. They responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: Many of the essays in this book begin by describing the well-documented gap between scholars and policy makers, and how it is perpetuated by longstanding cultural differences between the two. What’s different about the conversation now?

A: The gap between scholars and policy makers — reinforced by differences between their aims, methods, work cultures and institutional incentives — has long existed and been commented upon. Calls to bridge this gap have often been made in many countries and contexts, especially since Alexander George’s writings on this topic more than 20 years ago.

Three aspects of this conversation are different now. First, many observers note that the gap has been widening as scholars turn evermore to rigorous research methodologies, quantitative analysis, experimental techniques and formal modeling, thus developing increasingly precise answers to questions increasingly farther removed from policy relevance; and as policy makers operate in an environment of instant and constant communication, 24/7 news cycles, and little time for thoughtful analysis.  Second, societal pressures in a period of budget austerity are forcing more insistent reconsideration of the value of social science research, including that in the field of international relations. Third, a number of individuals and institutions, responding to these two trends, have been attempting to build more effective communications between scholars and policy makers, but these efforts have thus far been fragmented, and no concerted attempt has been made to draw together and learn from these activities. Our book squarely addresses that need.

Q: How can universities create incentives for social scientists to choose projects and areas of research that are relevant to policy issues?

A: Many individuals who seek advanced education in the social sciences are motivated to illuminate policy-relevant questions on the basis of rigorous and disciplined research. Dominant trends in the disciplines and academic departments tend, however, to push them away from topics, projects and methods that are directly policy-relevant and instead toward issues on which large bodies of data are easily accessible and that lend themselves to deriving statistically significant conclusions on the basis of correlation and regressions. What universities and funding agencies could do, without interfering with intellectual autonomy, would be to desist from discouraging junior scholars who are interested in policy-relevant research, and instead to consistently recognize and reward disciplined and rigorous research that contributes both to social science theory-building and to the formulation, analysis, review and evaluation of policies.

Q: Likewise, how can graduate degree programs in the political sciences offer better preparation for young scholars who want to align their work with policy matters?

A: Senior faculty members could encourage graduate students and junior colleagues to pick research topics not only for theory- or data-driven reasons, but also because of the likely significance of the research projects and results for policy. They could encourage students and junior colleagues to present their findings not only in peer-reviewed disciplinary journals, but also in policy journals and other formats that will make their conclusions more accessible and intelligible for policymakers. In doing so, they can encourage and some of them can teach students how to write direct, clear and engaging prose, and they can provide training and mentorship in oral exposition and in elite interviewing, both skills that are highly relevant in the policy community.

Scholars can also encourage students to seek opportunities to participate in government, think tanks or task forces early in their training. Such experiences alert students to hot policy issues and help them better understand how things work in and around the executive branch and related bureaucracies, which is key for gaining practical understanding of what it takes for ideas to influence policy. Scholars can also encourage learned journals and their student-run analogs, to emphasize the policy implications of social science research. They could help foreign affairs journals and the media identify academic work that can be “translated” for its relevance to policy, and they could recognize and reward colleagues at all levels whose research gains visibility and influence in the policy world, thus helping to provide role models and encourage mentorship.

Q: An essay in the collection says the gap between scholarship and policy making is most evident when reviewing policies related to the international "war on drugs."  What are some other current examples of a divide between what scholars recommend as the best course of action and what U.S. policy makers are pursuing?

A: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come immediately to mind. For the most part, scholars working on international affairs — irrespective of their theoretical bent or political preferences and inclinations — have opposed the United States’ military engagements with those countries. Many have openly opposed such wars for historically and empirically grounded reasons. Still, policy makers — and much of U.S. public opinion — supported the war option, at least early on. Another good example of how the politicization of an issue, such as the war on drugs, renders it impervious to the influence of research is that of U.S. policy toward Cuba. For years there has been a broad consensus among the scholarly community on the need to normalize relations and lift the embargo against the island. But what ultimately ended up shaping the recent change in U.S. policy was — among a myriad of domestic and international factors — the political will of a president who admitted that U.S. Cuba policy has been a longtime failure and that it was time to change course.

To be sure, having academic research influence policy making is no guarantee that the policy will be sound, or that it will work in practice. In fact, throughout history there have been a number of cases in which academic research has had what could be considered a pernicious effect, such as the racist immigration policies that were in place since 1924 until the early 1960s and the role that research played in the conduct of the Vietnam War. Still, the less politicized the issue, the more likely academic research is to have an impact on policy by contributing data, new concepts and diagnostics, evaluations, critiques, strategies, policy designs and sometimes actor-specific prescriptions that, although of value to policy makers, these cannot always obtain for themselves.

Q: Many writers mention the rise of the influence of think tanks and “quasi-academics.” What are the effects of this? Has it helped bridge the gap between scholars and policymakers?

A: Think tanks — i.e., independent research institutes that conduct policy-relevant research and communicate the results effectively to policy makers and concentric circles of policy-relevant individuals — can certainly help bridge the gap by connecting scholarly and policy networks and mentoring scholars about how to craft brief and engaging statements of policy-relevant research.

Think tanks can serve as brokers between academics and policy makers by helping to identify questions for which academic research might be helpful; highlighting emerging issues on which academic research will be needed; and teaching young scholars and graduate students skills, habits, attitudes and modes of behavior that will help them be recognized professionally and develop networks in the policy world.

Think tanks have liabilities and risks, however, as they are often constrained by their dependence on specific funding sources; they need to sustain access to partisan groups and government agencies; and they must command media visibility, therefore often privileging quick but thin insights rather than generating deep analysis and long-term perspectives. 

Q: Talking about the advantages of increased collaboration between scholars and policy makers is easier than actually putting those relationships into action. Who should take the lead in communicating and organizing such efforts? Are there any themes or successful strategies from the cases described in the book?

A: Some of the main points of Scholars, Policymakers and International Affairs: Finding Common Cause are these:

  • The possibilities and potentially mutual benefits of building more fruitful connections between scholars and policy makers are widely underestimated.
  • Bridge-building to establish such connections is likely to be more effective if it is undertaken from both banks of the chasm. Government officials and others in policy making roles can send signals — by convening small meetings or consulting individual scholars — that they actively seek the perspectives of academic specialists. Officials who reach out to scholars to solicit feedback on policy issues and draft policy statements can attract valuable interlocutors. Scholars who test their ideas with relevant policy makers can obtain valuable information and perspectives from officials with unique vantage points and information. Cross-fertilization can produce added value. Policy makers can take the initiative by identifying what puzzles or surprises them, and why, and they can try to specify what information and comparative analysis they might find most helpful. Academic interlocutors can partner effectively with policy makers to frame more useful inquiries.
  • Building better connections between scholars and policy makers is not about bridging an undifferentiated community on one side with a similarly undifferentiated community on the other.  Rather it is about exploring how to identify and link the most likely prospects in each camp, how to focus on the issues for which new ideas are most needed, and how to spot or create windows of opportunity for academic input.
  • Leadership for undertaking this bridge-building should and can come from many directions: senior and junior scholars; graduate students; department chairs and disciplinary gatekeepers; senior university officials; policy makers and their advisors; think tanks; policy journals and the broader media; funding sources; government agencies, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.



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