Few tropes about contemporary scholars are more beloved than the complaint of academic irrelevance. Why don’t political scientists get out of their ivory towers to engage with the public or try to influence policy? It seems an annual ritual for a prominent figure such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof or the eminent political scientist Joseph Nye to bemoan how academics have become ever more irrelevant. The subsequent debate follows a well-rehearsed script, with outraged protests by political scientists and knowing endorsements from journalists and pundits.
These arguments seem utterly anachronistic. It should be obvious – certainly to anyone reading the Monkey Cage – that this is a golden age of academic engagement with the public sphere. Engaging with policy and the public has become standard academic practice, rewarded within the discipline and supported by a broad range of publishing platforms and foundations. The Monkey Cage alone has published more than 8,000 articles featuring nearly 1,500 political scientists. Every day, hundreds of academics discuss their research or current events on group and personal blogs, think tank websites, magazines or major media sites.
Yet the “irrelevance of political science” meme has proved remarkably resilient. The endless recurrence of complaints about the relevance of political science itself demands explanation. How is it possible that, as late as 2011, 85 percent of scholars could think that the divide between the academy and policy is growing? How could anyone claim that “scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world” at a time when this manifestly has never been less true?
My experience encouraging Middle East political science experts to engage and inform the policy public through the Project on Middle East Political Science has given me a very different perspective on the question of academic engagement. In a new article for “Perspectives on Politics,” I use this experience to reframe those stale debates by asking instead about the implications of this fundamental transformation of the practice of political science.
One of Kristof’s key examples was scholars’ failure to anticipate the Arab Spring, because the degradation of area studies into “quantitative models and theoretical constructs” had rendered them oblivious. However, at the time he was writing, in February 2014, I had published more than 450 policy-relevant essays by some 200 political scientists for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. The Middle East Channel had even been named a finalist for a 2012 National Digital Magazine Award for its coverage of the Arab uprisings. That’s not bad for an irrelevant, out-of-touch professoriate standing aloof from public affairs. Political scientists specializing in the region were already doing everything Kristof wanted – and more.
The rise of political science public engagement has been so massive and rapid that it is paradoxically easy to miss. A decade ago, few political scientists had either the opportunity or the incentive to engage with the political public in a direct, unmediated way. Today, it would be difficult for a political scientist to be unable to find a platform to publish policy-relevant articles.
Norms have changed alongside practices. Leading foundations such as the Carnegie Corp. have invested heavily in promoting such engagement. Most grant-application forms now feature a section asking scholars to describe public outreach strategies. Department websites excitedly publicize faculty scholarship. The American Political Science Association has produced multiple presidential task force reports dedicated to finding ways to promote public engagement.
Indeed, the problem is no longer creating platforms or encouraging participation, as both now exist in vast quantities. The challenge now lies in curation, ensuring quality within a highly saturated market, and in impact, making all of the newfound effort actually matter.
First, curation. Traditionally, the challenge has been on the supply side, with the underproduction of work for a broader public requiring some new way to nudge academics out of their ivory towers. Now, the problem is rather an oversupply of policy-relevant writing platforms. Informed, rigorous writing by academics can easily get lost in a deluge of analysis, information and argument now available on a daily basis. As the leading theorist Shawn Carter once warned us, it is not wise to argue with fools because people from a distance can’t tell who is who.
Second, impact. Even if it’s true that political scientists now engage in greater numbers and forms, does any of it matter? It’s obviously true that academics will find endless opportunities to complain about policymakers ignoring them. But directly influencing policy is an ambitious goal for any would-be policy entrepreneur, and academics often misunderstand the ways in which they might effectively intervene in the policy process.
Existing policies typically have enormous sunk costs and powerful internal and external lobbies dedicated to keeping them in place. What would a politician gain from listening to an academic on Israeli-Palestinian issues, compared with the pressure she faces from multiple highly-invested and powerful players pushing for their preferred policies? Even good ideas must contend with the entrenched realities of electoral politics, bureaucratic inertia, sunk costs and competing interests. As Robert Jervis has observed, “there is nothing government hates more than to be well informed,” in part because such knowledge might require leaders to make unpopular decisions. Political scientists, of all people, really should understand all of this.
These sunk costs are mirrored in the public sphere, where oped pages and policy publications tend to be filled past the brim with articles repeating the same arguments over and over again. Policy entrepreneurs have no incentive to revisit or change their views in the face of scholarly criticism. Indeed, they have every incentive to publish the same argument over and over again. Academics who deliver a stinging critique of a weak editorial or rigorously uncover the methodological flaws of a policy proposal are understandably dismayed when they must repeatedly issue the same analysis over the following months and years, to no evident effect. This results in a public sphere shaped by what I call the “Seinfeld Imperative” that guided the writers of the eponymous sitcom: no learning.
Political scientists are also often too quick to assume that their policy ideas are in fact good ones. Arguments which pass peer-review might rely upon assumptions or scope conditions which render them unsuitable to actual policy domains. Too often, academics eager to provide policy advice fail to understand how the policy process works, pitching unrealistic ideas to the wrong people at the wrong time. Have some sympathy for the harried State Department desk officer being told that she can only push Tunisians towards political reform by first resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The day after the Washington Post reports a Cabinet meeting on a topic, which has by that point been thoroughly worked over by multiple agencies and narrowed down to a limited set of options, is not an effective time to pitch a new idea.
Where issues are well defined and the stakes clear, academics will be unlikely to have significant impact. However, certain conditions do increase the likelihood of real policy impact. Where there is real uncertainty and active internal discussions over policy, academics have a greater opportunity for impact. The Arab uprisings were one of those moments. The rapid spread of a massive protest wave across much of the Arab world created a profoundly uncertain environment in which neither the stakes nor the relevant referent points were clear. U.S. government officials eagerly engaged with academics during those early days of the Arab uprising, read their policy-relevant publications, and at key points attempted to act on their ideas about democratic transitions.
Obama’s Syria policy was similarly informed by the findings of political scientists specializing in civil wars and insurgencies who showed how proposed limited interventions were unlikely to succeed. A wide range of theoretical and comparative analysis supported this skepticism – as did an internal study by the CIA that similarly failed to find any historical examples of a policy of arming rebels succeeding. While some now complain that Obama systematically ignored experts on Syria, it would be more accurate to say that he considered their arguments for intervention but found the comparative analysis of political scientists more compelling.
Changing policy, while not out of reach, is not the only – or even necessarily the best – measure of impact. Academic engagement can shape the terms of public discourse, providing information and analytical models which make for better debates. They can try to keep the pundits honest, pointing out the weak evidence or logic underlying the conventional wisdom. What is more, engaging with publics should not be a one-way street. Writing for a broader public, especially online, should open the door to interaction with an enormous and diverse group of people interested in the same subjects. Working in the policy realm should put scholars into more direct contact with officials willing to share information and perspectives, while writing for the public about the Middle East opens up channels for discussions with diverse people from the region affected by the issues.
The discipline should think as seriously about the potential problems raised by too much policy relevance as it has about the problems of inadequate engagement. The imperative to engage with the public could distort research agendas. Scholars working on the Middle East have long worried about the potential cooptation of research by the American national security agenda or the reluctance of would-be policy entrepreneurs to address sensitive issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And there is the risk that engaged scholars might flock to issues such as terrorism while neglecting other important issues that do not neatly fall within prevailing security discourses. Though I believe that the field has proven quite capable of engaging the policy public on its own terms, the potential for such distortions clearly seems like a discussion worth having.
The endless recurrence of arguments over the irrelevance of political science masks the reality that the relevance revolution has already happened. Political scientists do engage in the public realm in fundamentally new ways, and a qualitatively new political science public sphere already exists. The real discussion now should be about the implications of such norms of engagement, how it might be reshaping the discipline for better of for worse, how to sustain the current level of public engagement and expand its impact, and how to grapple with the ethical challenges involved in seeking and having policy impact.