Are we in a 1914
scenario in East Asia? How often
do guerrillas succeed? Did counterterrorism
law erode national sovereignty? These are just a few of the important
questions that political science has some bearing on. Yet barely a couple
months goes by without an op-ed decrying political science’s alleged lack of
relevance to the outside world.
Political scientists are frequently told their research is too arcane,
mathematical, and self-involved to be of possible value to anyone in Washington
dealing with real-world policy problems. There’s a grain of truth here. As
international political economy whiz Kindred Winecoff observes,
political scientists need to make a better “elevator pitch.” But here’s the problem: at the end of the day, there is a difference between what
Max Weber dubbed science
as a vocation and the subjective policy lessons we can take from our study.
Part of that gap is reflected in the difficulties that people with
purely policy interests inevitably encounter in PhD programs.
From my own (minor) experience so
far, it is grueling, necessitates the assimilation of difficult methodologies,
and involves having to think about intellectual questions that many people
would regard as hopelessly arcane. Even a good PhD program that directly
tackles policy questions will likely demand the student grapple with questions
of esoteric theory and method. And not all research that tackles highly abstract questions is policy-irrelevant. Highly technical analysis of game theory and
economics generated useful policy applications form the World War II convoy
system to nuclear strategy and wargaming.
All of these advances began from the
desire to grapple with difficult questions to produce knowledge, something many
critics of political science research do not acknowledge. Take Greg Ferenstein, who
penned an article supporting Eric Cantor’s call to defund the NSF. His
gripe is familiar. Political science is obscuratist, hyper-mathematical, and
disconnected from the policy world. Political
scientists don’t do enough to make their research accessible to policymakers.
Ferenstein wants a political science that his mother-in-law
can understand, and he thinks starving academia of resources will motivate
hungry researchers to do better. So is modern
political science irrelevant to policy needs?
Contra Ferenstein, policymakers have thrown substantial $$ at the
kind of research he regards as navel-gazing arcana. The RAND Corporation got a
lot of mileage using what Ferenstein derides as “clever mathematical
models” during the Cold War. I’m not sure that Jay Ulfelder, who worked for the
intelligence community-funded Political Instability Task Force, would agree
that his quantitative forecasting methodologies must pass a mother-in-law test to be valuable.
And when New York University’s game theory guru Bruce Bueno De Mesquita speaks,
the CIA listens. Drew Conway, a man that could easily teach a computer programming course just as well as poli-sci 101, gives invited talks at West Point on analyzing terrorist networks. I don’t think Ulfelder, Mesquita, or Conway have sleepless nights pondering the relevance of their research to the govermment!
Ferenstein also laments the decline of grand theory that policy-makers could
comprehend and the rise of empirical research. Perhaps the most ironic thing
about Ferenstein’s citation of this trend as a bad thing is that the rise of empirical research actually does
away with the worst tendencies of the “old” international relations. In
the old days, people proclaimed
their allegiance to warring theoretical tribes. Now the enterprising
researcher will take whatever can get them from point A to B. That, and
political scientists are actually interested in whether or not their theories
correct! It is difficult to see why this is bad for policy and endless
theological debates over theories first advanced in the middle of the 20th
century is good.
Of course method isn’t everything. The aforementioned Ulfelder is conversant in both important
theories of the state and rigorous methods. My friend Aaron Frank has built rigorous computer
simulations based on deep thought about the philosophy of science and human
cognition. Dare I say that Frank, before generating his quantitative simulations, has to deal with policy-unfriendly concepts like “ontology” and “epistemology?” But Ulfelder and Frank aren’t hung up about whether their theories
confirm realism, liberalism, or constructivism. And they are not afraid to use
the best methods available to pursue their research, no matter how challenging
they may be. On the more qualitative side, someone like Ryan Evans uses field work to come to fine-ingrained analysis of civil wars. Ryan’s work, though leaning towards qualitative political sociology, is equally as demanding as the most rigorous quant work. But Ryan also is informed by useful theory.
Ferenstein’s “mother-in-law” test for policy relevance is also ridiculous. Economists
looking to be policy-relevant don’t lose sleep over whether their mother-in-law
gets their theories. Whether Timothy Geithner can
pick it up matters. Much of what military historian (full disclosure: my
military history instructor in Fall 2010) David Johnson
writes about the future of land warfare is too esoteric for a mother-in-law
without grounding in military history. But Johnson now heads a group
that will likely decide the future of the Army. That’s some policy relevance
most academics can only dream of. And Ulfelder’s mother-in-law would have to be down with Bayesian stats to get most of his work. Does the IC care?
I can’t speak for Ferenstein, but I can’t help but ask: when critics
claim that political science research is too esoteric, mathematical, and
self-involved, are they are really unhappy that it has become more rigorous and empirical? There was once a
time when a policy thinker could converse about the social sciences without
making an effort to grapple with the methodological tools and theories that
underpin those disciplines. That era is over and won’t be coming back anytime
soon. The policy-academic bridge certainly does need fixing. But this requires
effort and understanding from both partners.
First, the blunt truth is that all of the policy-relevant research in the world
won’t persuade a policymaker to deviate from something they ideologically
believe in. And why should research alone dictate fundamentally political decisions? Politicians are
not engineers or technocrats. Who believes political science research alone
should decide the question of abortion? For supporters and detractors alike,
it’s a question that touches on the most basic questions of human life and
Finally, op-eds like the piece Ferenstein penned offer no constructive
advice for better academia-policy harmony. Political scientists already invest considerable effort and intellectual
energy trying to “bridge the gap.”
It’s time for the policy world to reciprocate. Yes, state of the art political
science methods and theories take time and effort to learn. But couldn’t a policymaker
hire a political science grad to boil down research of interest to a few bullet points? There’s an army of Hill staffers already at work helping their bosses get smart on policy areas that
Senator John or Jane Doe have to vote on. There really are many easy, commonsense solutions to the problem if one seriously thinks about it.
The academia-policy divide isn’t unbridgeable. Both sides just have to
respect each other’s needs and culture. Policy enthusiasts should acknowledge and respect the inevitably arcane rigor needed to make good political science research instead of bashing it
for not being immediately comprehensible to one’s mother-in-law. Academics must
understand that policy makers have unique needs, don’t have tenure to insulate
them from the consequences of getting an issue wrong, and make choices about
fundamentally normative questions that science cannot conclusively answer.
More people get this than alarmist op-eds may lead us to believe. After all, love of Middle East studies and political violence research spurred a American University of Beirut and King’s College London grad (who is now at the Pentagon in an one-year International Affairs Fellowship) to found this very blog. From late high school to the beginning of my PhD program, reading Andrew Exum’s blogging of relevant political science research motivated me to view policy and academia as complementary. And surely I’m not the only one. Maybe the “policy relevant” crowd can take a hint too.