A familiar narrative over the past decade has been the desire of international relations scholars to be policy relevant — and the frustration that these scholars feel about the gap between scholarship and policymaking. Recent scholarly articles have explored the reasons for this gap. One cause they consistently highlight is political science’s excessive reliance on quantitative techniques, such as formal modelling and econometrics. As University of Notre Dame’s Michael Desch and MIT’s Paul C. Avey noted a few years ago after surveying senior policymakers:
In recent years the [political science] discipline has become dominated by more complex methodologies such as formal modeling and statistics. Policymakers tend to eschew, in the words of one respondent, “all formulaic academic, as opposed to historically based temperamental, realist projects,” preferring, in the words of another, “historical analysis, case studies, theoretical writings that illustrate theory with case studies and concrete examples.” The higher the respondent’s government rank, the less likely an individual was to rank political science positively.
For political scientists, the long-standing conclusion has been that they should not try to use statistics to make their case to policymakers, because they’ll just make everyone’s eyes glaze over.
The thing is, however, most of the evidence suggesting that policymakers eschew statistical work is based on surveys of senior or retired officials. Earlier this year, Notre Dame professor Tanisha Fazal published an article in the journal Security Studies suggesting that a generational shift may be changing this dynamic. Fazal notes that younger cadres of policymakers are far more likely to have taken statistics courses before they entered the government, which makes them more likely to be receptive to statistical evidence. She also notes the rise of government-led research initiatives that rely on statistical techniques:
Since the turn of the 21st century, government funding has created or supported the quantitatively-oriented Political Instability Task Force (PITF) and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START); the Minerva Initiative has funded numerous projects using quantitative methods with the express purpose of linking those researchers to relevant policymakers.
Fazal’s evidence is suggestive, but I want to offer two more suggestive data points that confirm her proposition. First, as someone who researches economic sanctions, I’ve been struck this year by the number of interactions I’ve had with mid-level State Department employees who are performing their own statistical research on such sanctions. These officials are familiar with the scholarly literature and with the statistical techniques to examine the causal relationship between economic sanctions and other factors. I’m sure the fruits of this research are distilled into accessible memos for senior policymakers — but those memos are grounded in statistical work that is ostensibly off-putting to diplomats.
Second, I’m one of several scholars at the Fletcher School that is working on a project devoted to how fragile states can build state legitimacy. Over the past few months, these scholars have begun to present research findings to a wide array of policymakers in international organizations and the U.S. government. These presentations include summaries of statistical work performed by some of the research team. They are well received, but what’s striking to me is the degree to which younger participants drink in the statistical findings. I suspect that it’s a combination of two factors. As Fazal said, younger officials are more comfortable with statistics. Younger officials are also more likely to have had recent field experience. It is therefore easier for them to connect the statistical findings to their own experiential conclusions.
This does not mean that we will soon have secretaries of state citing scholarly literature like the chair of the Federal Reserve. Political appointees to foreign-policy postings may not have the same training and background as career diplomats. Still, if the foreign-policy bureaucracy is becoming more comfortable with statistics, then this kind of political science work will find an increasingly receptive audience within the U.S. government.