(Astrid Riecken/Washington Post)
(Astrid Riecken/Washington Post)

Political science academics and wonks at think tanks don’t always understand each other very well. Academics sometimes sneer at wonks as second-rate thinkers, while wonks often dismiss political scientists as airy-headed theorizers. However, as the Elizabeth O’Bagy scandal of a couple of weeks ago showed, the academy and the wonkosphere are closely connected. O’Bagy became a prominent commentator on Syria while working at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank. When it was revealed that O’Bagy had lied about her Ph.D. (she claimed to have a doctorate from Georgetown, but was not even enrolled in a Ph.D. program), she had to resign, damaging her career and embarrassing the think tank that she worked for. Academics commenting on this story were unsurprised and unforgiving – they saw O’Bagy as having betrayed basic professional norms. Of course, people who lie about their doctorate should be cast into the outer darkness.

It’s more complicated than most academics realize. Take Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, current Distinguished Statesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The reason that zu Guttenberg is no longer German Minister of Defense is because he, too, had a dodgy doctorate. When researchers discovered that zu Guttenberg’s Ph.D. dissertation was heavily plagiarized, his doctorate was revoked, and he left German politics. However, this didn’t stop him from getting a highly prestigious position at a highly prestigious think tank. When O’Bagy was found to have lied about her doctorate, she was obliged to resign. When zu Guttenberg’s doctorate was stripped from him for plagiarism, he was able to get a new position at a think tank.

These different outcomes tell us how the D.C. think tank world works. Doctorates are important when they are the main source of expertise. When someone has an alternative form of legitimation, not so much. When I asked the CSIS for comment last week, John Hamre, the president of CSIS, replied:

Herr zu Guttenberg apologized for his mistake to the German people. We did not ask for his affiliation because of his academic credentials but because of his genuine policy leadership while he was a senior member of the German government. He distinguished himself in that role as an innovative thinker and leader.

Hamre suggests that zu Guttenberg’s academic credentials didn’t play an important role in CSIS’s decision to hire him. Although the CSIS leaders surely considered the scandal (and presumably would have preferred if zu Guttenberg hadn’t been embroiled in it), they didn’t think it was as relevant to a policy maker as it might have been to an academic expert. Think tanks need both academic credentials and policy relevance, and sometimes have to trade them off against each other.

As UCSD sociologist Thomas Medvetz has argued, Washington think tanks work the boundaries between academia, journalism and public policy. On the one hand, think tanks need the gravitas of their connection to the academy. Without this connection, “policy experts would run the risk of looking too much like their K Street or Capitol Hill cousins, whose material resources and political access inevitably overshadow their own.” On the other, think tanks also need to be able to get their message out, and to demonstrate their links to policy making. Former senior politicians, who have networks, leadership skills and clout, but who are not too directly tied to day-to-day politics, can be very valuable.

This likely explains the differing fates of O’Bagy and zu Guttenberg. O’Bagy’s academic credentials were crucial to her status as an ‘expert.’ When these credentials exploded, so did her career. Zu Guttenberg’s value rests not on his purported academic training, but on his past political role and current political connections. His problematic doctorate destroyed his political career at home (Germans care a lot about doctoral qualifications, which is why so many German politicians have them) but didn’t stop him getting a prized position at a highly respected think tank. Think tanks value their connection to the academy, but don’t glorify the doctorate in the way that academia does. For some think tank fellows it is an essential source of authority. For others, it’s pretty well irrelevant.