What Does the Policy-Academia Gap Really Look Like?

It is well documented that a gap does exist between International Relations and the foreign policy establishment.  Nicholas Kristof prominently referred to political science in general as irrelevant and ‘cloistered,’ arguing that the two camps should move more closely to one another.  But what does this gap really look like?

Image courtesy of Reinhardt Dietrich, © 2011, public domain
Image courtesy of Reinhardt Dietrich, © 2011, public domain

There are a couple of research projects which study precisely this issue.  Luckily, one of those groups, the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project, based at the College of William & Mary, just released results of its results of its fall 2014 poll of over 4,000 IR scholars at universities in over thirty countries.  Scholars were asked nearly 100 questions regarding their views on the academic discipline and foreign policy issues.

What makes this data more useful to examining a perceived gap is the existence of a similar poll, conducted by Professors Paul Avey and Michael Desch, of policy makers.  This poll asks similar questions, but is directed towards senior policy makers.  By comparing responses on both sets of polls, we can examine in greater detail certain elements of the gap between policy makers and academics.  Though some writers have done this with older TRIP data from 2011, a new poll allows us to shed fresh light on the question.

One downside of this data is that the Avey and Desch survey covers only the upper tiers of the American foreign policy establishment.  So to maintain the integrity of the analysis, this article also restricts the TRIP data to American scholars only.  These limitations are significant to be sure, but at least we can still examine the policy-academia gap in one country (admittedly one country which 60% of scholars worldwide say dominates the IR discipline).

Looking at the data, the first data that we notice is that scholars and academics seem to be looking at different parts of the world.  When IR scholars were asked on what areas of the world they primarily focus their research, their top responses were Western Europe, followed by the Middle East, with Latin America coming in third and East Asia ranking fourth. In fact, plurality of scholars reported only that they study global phenomenon or transnational networks—in other words, they don’t specialise in a given part of the world.  Policy makers, however, that East Asia was the area of the world of ‘greatest strategic importance to the United States,’ although policy makers ranked the Middle East/North Africa as the next most important area.  Clearly there are differences in what areas of the world policy makers and academics study.

More fundamentally, scholars and policy-makers disagree about what kind of research is most valuable in a policy context. When asked what kind of IR research scholars believe to be most useful to policy makers, IR scholars were most likely to suggest that (in descending order) area studies, contemporary case studies, and policy analysis as ‘very useful.’  Policy makers agree that these are the most useful areas of inquiry, though they include historical case studies as a close runner up. It seems that the gap disappears here, but it re-emerges when one examines what scholars actually study.  Over half of scholars report using ‘qualitative methods’ as their primary method of research, followed by quantitative analysis and then policy analysis—so to policy makers, quantitative methods are an unwelcome interlocutor.  This gap becomes even more apparent looking at publications—top-tier journals of IR are dominated by state-of-the-art quantitative methods, mostly varieties of large-n regressions and other such statistics.  So while the field gives much of its attention to quantitative methods, the policy community places little value on such work.

The Avey and Desch survey provides plenty of other realisations regarding the gap.  When policy makers were asked to rank the most influential scholars, they gravitated towards scholars who spent significant time in the policy world, such as Joseph Nye, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Graham Allison.  Only Joseph Nye was similarly regarded by scholars, and there is little overlap besides that.

Interestingly, the Avey and Desch survey also directly asks policy makers what role they saw for scholars when it comes to policy.  Most scholars (87% and 72% respectively0 thought that scholars should serve as ‘informal advisors’ or as ‘creators of new knowledge.’ Only 54% thought that scholars should be ‘teachers of [future] policymakers.  But a silver lining with regards to minimising the gap is that only 5% of policymakers thought that academics should have no role at all in the formation of foreign policy.

Clearly there is a gap—and according to TRIP data, over half of scholars worldwide have at some point attempted to make their work more policy relevant, so clearly there is a desire to close that gap.  But is that necessarily a good thing?

IR Professor Daniel Drezner makes the point that the policy makers and the academics are different ‘tribes’ who each have unique strength that they can lend to foreign policy analysis.  The policy makers—he calls them ‘Beltway Types’—often have knowledge of the minutia of any given treaty, war, embargo, etc. Academics, on the other hand, will probably ‘have usually read the most about whatever issue area or trouble spot du jour is on the foreign policy agenda,’ which suggests that they have the most in depth knowledge.  Both of these strengths work best together.  So bridging the gap ought to consist more of improving communication across the ‘tribes.’

One way that this is happening is through the proliferation of foreign affairs blogs written by scholars, such as Duck of Minerva, War on the Rocks, the Monkey Cage, or Political Violence at a Glance, though some scholars argue that internet dissemination increased the signal-to-noise ratio of pseudo-scholarship to real academic work.  There is also some disagreement amongst IR scholars (according to TRIP data) about how much publications in policy journals, such as Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy ought to count when it comes to tenure relative to articles in academic journals, with some professors arguing that an increased emphasis placed on the former than has previously been the case.  Regardless, it seems that communication between the ivory tower and the outside is increasing.

A gap exists between policy and academia.  Though the data only exists for the United States, it is highly doubtful that other states have resolved the problem (in fact, Amitav Acharya argues that certain states which have brought the two very close have suffered for it).  But things are looking up; maybe the gap is not narrowing, but communication seems to be improving across that gulf.  Kristof may argue academia ‘that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience,’ but awareness of the problem may yet herald a sea change in the policy-academia gap.

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