Articles and Posts from ISQ

In our piece “What Do Policymakers Want From Us?” we reported the results of a one-of-a-kind survey of 234 current and former senior national security policymakers. We focused on when and how they use social science research to inform their decision-making.  Our results, as Susan Peterson suggests, are “mixed:” On the one hand, policymakers regularly follow international relations scholarship, find some of it useful, and wish that more of it was.  On the other hand, as our data, in combination with the Teaching, Research, and International Politics (TRIP) results make clear, it is less useful to policymakers than it could be and seems to be moving in a direction that will widen, rather than close, the gap between the two realms.    


This is both an intellectual puzzle (why is it happening?) and a policy challenge (presumably we scholars would like to be relevant to policymakers).  The thoughtful responses to our piece by James Goldgeier, Catherine Weaver, and Susan Peterson provide us with the opportunity to think further about both of these issues.


On the first, Weaver zeroes in on a plausible explanation for why this is happening: most of the incentives in the Ivory Tower do not encourage relevance.  In a related piece, Peter Campbell and Desch looked at academic rankings – particularly the gold-standard National Research Council’s assessment of graduate programs – which shape the incentives most scholars face. They found these rankings systematically ignore policy relevance. Further, they demonstrate that if instead of looking at publications in scholarly journals, citations by other scholars, the number of Ph.D.s awarded, how quickly students came through the pipeline, and how many of them went on to strictly academic jobs, we ranked programs based on factors associated with policy-relevance such as presence in national media, publication in leading policy journals such as Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, number of faculty who won a prestigious Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship that gave them a year to work in Government or some other applied setting, or number of faculty who testify before Congress, the ranking of the top 50 political science departments in the United States would change dramatically.  These are by no means the only, or even the best, measures of policy-relevance, but they certainly suggest that the Ivory Tower’s incentive structure is a big part of the problem.


The second issue, then, is what should we do about the widening gap?  James Goldgeier and his colleagues in the “Bridging the Gap” project have taken one approach through their innovative International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI) seminars.  In them, young scholars get a remedial education in accessible writing and plain speaking, along with some helpful tips on net-working and an introduction to the folk-ways of the Beltway, to help them translate their scholarship into Beltwayese and figure out who to speak it to in the corridors of power.  The strength of this approach is that it might reform the Ivory Tower from within by convincing young international relations scholars that they can adhere to the norms of academia and still speak to a broader audience; a potential weakness is that it ignores the real and enduring tensions between these two realms and depends upon those scholars most sensitive to the field’s incentives and with the least ability, in the short-term, to change them. Will the seeds IPSI is planting take root or is the soil of the field becoming so inhospitable to policy relevance that it will only survive through outside pressure?


Susan Peterson’s piece raises a  related point. While the situation could be better, she notes that policymakers are nonetheless "getting more of what they need" than we (and policymakers) allow. If true, the issue remains where the trends are going in the field. If the modal mind-set among the intellectual leaders is to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” then perhaps we should just make our peace with policy-relevance being the purview of a subset of scholars and let the rest cultivate their own gardens around the Ivory Tower. The neutral description of this approach is a “division of labor,” the pejorative is “balkanization.” Unfortunately the TRIP data indicates a secular decline in scholars’ willingness to offer policy prescriptions and a graying of those scholars interested in undertaking policy analysis in the leading journals.  Complacency about the current situation is thus unwarranted because the water in the half-full glass seems to be evaporating.


Weaver’s solution is to change the incentives scholars face.  While in principle, this makes excellent sense, as Campbell and Desch also argued, in practice, measuring policy relevance is not a straight-forward exercise. Yet measurement is critical not only for crafting incentives but also to assess the degree to which important efforts like IPSI are succeeding and if the trends are indeed moving away from policy-relevant scholarship.


We have good data in political science about one plausible measure of declining policy-relevance – does scholarship offer explicit policy recommendations – from Lee Sigelman’s 2006 American Political Science Review article on the 100th anniversary of the discipline’s flagship journal.  The TRIP journal survey of international relations journals since 1980 offers a similar assessment of a wider swath of publications in the subfield. 


To be sure, these measures by no means exhaust the way that scholarship could be policy relevant nor are they without their own limitations. In the absence of a better alternative, though, they are useful as a first-cut at assessing policy relevance.  But ultimately, if scholars wish to change the incentives for policy-relevant work, particularly for young scholars, much more work needs to be done to explore the various aspects of “policy relevance” and to find ways to track and explain changes in it in international relations scholarship. 


We are grateful to our interlocutors both for their insightful comments on our piece and also for providing us (and the rest of the sub-field) with the opportunity to think further about this vital issue.


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Representing 100 countries, ISA has over 6,500 members worldwide and is the most respected and widely known scholarly association in this field. Endeavoring to create communities of scholars dedicated to international studies, ISA is divided into 7 geographic subdivisions of ISA (Regions), 29 thematic groups (Sections) and 4 Caucuses which provide opportunities to exchange ideas and research with local colleagues and within specific subject areas.
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