Scholars Wrestle With Challenges of Engaging With Policy Makers
Kelvin Ma, Tufts U.
What does it mean to do policy-relevant research? How do you know if your ideas have any impact? And is it dangerous to blog, tweet, or otherwise engage with the public while pursuing tenure? Those were just some of the questions academics wrestled with on Tuesday in a conference on “the ideas industry” sponsored by the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Speakers largely hailed from the realm of international relations and foreign policy, but the concerns they raised are found in many corners of academe. Even as legislators and funding agencies call on researchers to connect with the broader public, disciplinary pressures, along with the frequent mismatch of interests between those who study the world and those who shape it, make that no easy task.
“Scholars write what policy makers don’t read, and policy makers make decisions that scholars can’t parse,” noted Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at Fletcher, kicking off the discussion.
That common concern has spawned a host of initiatives focused on bridging the gap between academics and the public. But while such programs have provided useful platforms and networks for interested academics, even those who do a lot of outreach find it challenging.
“There are some powerful organizational pathologies in our disciplines that make doing policy-relevant work difficult,” said Michael C. Desch, chairman of the political-science department at the University of Notre Dame, who has studied those issues. “Research is often driven more by internal disciplinary criteria than by what policy makers need.”
Scholars here talked about the barriers to entry, including finding the time to translate research into accessible prose, and framing their work in ways that tap into the questions policy makers and the public are asking.
Erin Simpson, chief executive officer of Caerus Associates, a Washington-based consulting group, encouraged academics to see their deep expertise on topics that are not always on the front burner as an asset. Ukraine experts may not have been in demand a year ago, but they are now. Similarly, academics bring rigorous, fact-based thinking to an arena that is often lacking those skills.
At the same time, she and others familiar with the world of public policy stressed the limits of academic engagement. “Policy makers want to hear what they want to hear,” said Ms. Simpson, who holds a doctorate in political science. “They are not super-interested in a deep empirical explanation of why they are wrong.”
Not Worrying About Rejection
Michael C. Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who has done policy work for the Department of Defense, advised academics to hold a realistic view of how the world of policy making works. A lot of it boils down to providing background for discussions and helping policy makers figure out whether past cases fit the present situation. It is not, he stressed, writing a memorandum that lands on the president’s desk and forever changes foreign policy.
“If that’s the definition,” he said, “then 99.9 percent of government employees are not policy relevant.”
Persistence is also important. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School who organized the conference, is a regular presence in the pages of Foreign Policy and other news media. But he noted that he also has a file cabinet full of rejection letters. “People who do relatively well at this, it doesn’t scar them the way it scars others,” he noted.
Other academics echoed that view. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose research on technology and social movements has led to op-eds in The New York Times, said she’s a mediocre writer. But she knows she has good ideas and solid research, so she keeps plugging away.
“I don’t worry about rejection,” she said. “I just try someplace else.”
She and others also encouraged academics to use blogs, Twitter, and other social media to test out ideas—provided they have the interest, and the thick skin.
But engaged academics noted the steep challenges they face to keep such efforts going. Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, helps run The Monkey Cage, a popular political-science blog at The Washington Post. Because it is so time consuming to keep fresh and to find good, relevant writers, he said, academic blogs like that one might not be economically sustainable.
Other speakers stressed that while finding time may be the biggest problem for tenured or tenure-track faculty members, finding the money to support oneself while doing low- or non-paying writing is a bigger concern for adjunct faculty members. Rather than thinking of this as an individual problem, said Sarah Kendzior, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, it needs to be seen as an institutional problem in which the tenure system is broken.
“The pressure should be on them to change the system,” said Ms. Kendzior, who writes on politics, media, and the economy for Al Jazeera English, The Chronicle, and other outlets.
Writing for a General Audience
The difficulty in finding scholars who can translate complex ideas into readable prose generated a lively discussion on the badness of academic writing. Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs, said there’s a “tragic quality” to the problem because the gap between what scholars have to offer and what they can express is so great.
He and Ben Pauker, managing editor at Foreign Policy, gave a few suggestions to academics who want to write for a general audience: Move quickly (two weeks is a long time to wait for a current-affairs piece); don’t pitch articles that run 20,000 words; and consider explanatory pieces or book reviews as a way to convey your knowledge of a topic in a timely way.
Academics who aren’t interested in, or adept at, journalistic writing can still find a place at the table, speakers said. “Being slow and careful and plodding can still be relevant,” said John Cisternino, research director at the Tobin Project, a nonprofit organization that brings policy makers and academics together on longer-term research efforts.
Indeed, being first and foremost a scholar is what makes one’s work important, speakers said. “Let us blog, let us tweet, but let us not give up all the things that academia has but nobody else does,” said Ms. Tufekci. The question, she said, “is, How do we use our strengths to insert ourselves into this dialogue, not to please policy makers but sometimes to challenge them?”