Scholars on the Sidelines

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By Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Monday, April 13, 2009

President Obama has appointed some distinguished academic economists and lawyers to his administration, but few high-ranking political scientists have been named. In fact, the editors of a recent poll of more than 2,700 international relations experts declared that "the walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high."

While important American scholars such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski took high-level foreign policy positions in the past, that path has tended to be a one-way street. Not many top-ranked scholars of international relations are going into government, and even fewer return to contribute to academic theory. The 2008 Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) poll, by the Institute for Theory and Practice in International Relations, showed that of the 25 scholars rated as producing the most interesting scholarship during the past five years, only three had ever held policy positions (two in the U.S. government and one in the United Nations). The fault for this growing gap lies not with the government but with the academics.

Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one's career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers. A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967. Editor Lee Sigelman observed in the journal's centennial issue that "if 'speaking truth to power' and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal."

As citizens, academics might be considered to have an obligation to help improve on policy ideas when they can. Moreover, such engagement can enhance and enrich academic work, and thus the ability of academics to teach the next generation. As former undersecretary of state David Newsom argued a decade ago, "the growing withdrawal of university scholars behind curtains of theory and modeling would not have wider significance if this trend did not raise questions regarding the preparation of new generations and the future influence of the academic community on public and official perceptions of international issues and events. Teachers plant seeds that shape the thinking of each new generation; this is probably the academic world's most lasting contribution." Yet too often scholars teach theory and methods that are relevant to other academics but not to the majority of the students sitting in the classroom before them.

Some academics say that while the growing gap between theory and policy may have costs for policy, it has produced better social science theory, and that this is more important than whether such scholarship is relevant. Also, to some extent, the gap is an inevitable result of the growth and specialization of knowledge. Few people can keep up with their subfields, much less all of social science. But the danger is that academic theorizing will say more and more about less and less.

Even when academics supplement their usual trickle-down approach to policy by writing in journals, newspapers or blogs, or by consulting for candidates or public officials, they face many competitors for attention. More than 1,200 think tanks in the United States provide not only ideas but also experts ready to comment or consult at a moment's notice. Some of these new transmission belts serve as translators and additional outlets for academic ideas, but many add a bias provided by their founders and funders. As a group, think tanks are heterogeneous in scope, funding, ideology and location, but universities generally offer a more neutral viewpoint. While pluralism of institutional pathways is good for democracy, the policy process is diminished by the withdrawal of the academic community.

The solutions must come via a reappraisal within the academy itself. Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promoting young scholars. Journals could place greater weight on relevance in evaluating submissions. Studies of specific regions deserve more attention. Universities could facilitate interest in the world by giving junior faculty members greater incentives to participate in it. That should include greater toleration of unpopular policy positions. One could multiply such useful suggestions, but young people should not hold their breath waiting for them to be implemented. If anything, the trends in academic life seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

The writer is a professor at Harvard University and former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. The 2008 TRIP poll of scholars rated his work in international relations as having had the most influence on American foreign policy.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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