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Policy Relevance 101: Minding the gap

Politicians and their Science

Picture taken at Capitol Hill Books–a local institution with just the right amount of attitude.

Nicholas Kristof’s call in yesterday’s NYTs for scholars to contribute in ways that matter to today’s “great debates” hit a nerve. The best response so far is Cory Robin’s post in which he refutes much of what Kristof says by highlighting great contributions by established scholars, as well as young scholars in the blog-o-sphere.

Today Kristof responded to comments by upping the ante. Now it is not simply that academics are marginalized by an anti-intellectual American culture, while at the same time marginalizing themselves by failing to contribute to great debates in ways that appeal to wide audiences. It is also that academics do not serve at the pleasure of the President and no longer have the freedom to move back and forth between government and the Academy in the way the Kristof claims they did in the 1960’s.

Aside from the fact that this picture of the 1960’s academic scene is positively dripping with childhood sentimentality, it is also a rather bizarre claim that such influence today does not exist given the revolving door between the current administration and university positions (David Axelrod now heads his own institute at the University of Chicago)–not to mention the reported growth in the number of administrators with little or no teaching or professorial experience. It is also true that there were plenty of scholars in the 1960’s that felt marginalized by Washington politicians. Hans Morgenthau, for instance, complains at great length in his text on the subject, Truth and Power.

Nonetheless, there is some truth to Kristof’s notion of a “gap” between the kind of knowledge that the Academy values and what is required of individuals who wish to participate in larger political debates. Kristof is correct that the gap has something to do with the requirement to publish esoteric articles that conform to rigorous methodological standards, but not living in that world himself he knows little about the value of such work to those who produce it or what it means to negotiate that space.

There is a significant amount of government and foundation money that is dedicated to bridging that gap, much of which exists thanks to the kinds of structural changes associated with the success of RAND and the growth of think tanks. There are also professors with a desire to increase their influence in this world who study what they can do to make themselves more relevant to the debates policymakers care about.

This is the in-between world in which I have been living for the past couple years. I sought out this space in part because I wanted to ask and answer questions that contributed not only to academic debates, but also to contemporary political problems. I chose nuclear security studies because studying nuclear weapons and their exceptional relationship to political power allows me to place one foot in theory and one in practice. However, I also chose this space because I found the disciplinary politics around what counted as a legitimate methodology in Political Science too constraining–scholarly communities are called disciplines for a reason–stepping too far outside the boundaries will get you burned. My preferred methodologies are out of fashion in the United States because they are considered too “unscientific.” However, in the interdisciplinary world of nuclear security studies the presence of physicists as the ultimate arbitrators of what counts as scientific knowledge, combined with their frequent disdain for what passes as “scientific” in the realm of Political Science, opens up a space in which I have been able to operate.

I have been on a personal quest to find my own political voice and figure out how to contribute to contemporary policy-relevant debates, but it hasn’t been easy. In January I started working for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. I figured the best way to learn to speak to policymakers was to live among them for a while. As a member of Senator Gillibrand’s legislative team I handle nuclear and cyber-related legislative activity. I wanted to live the experience of the Congressional process so that I could develop my own political intuition.

After years spent in pursuit of the “life of the mind” at the University of Chicago, I had lost all common sense. When I picked up something and read it, what I thought mattered or should be considered a realistic policy response was completely different from what the people around me in DC picked up on. I often found myself thinking things like, “what I am missing” or “how could they possibly think that’s a good idea.” The people around me were operating with assumptions that I didn’t share.

Grad school is an often brutal process of learning to question everything you thought you knew and replacing intuition with epistemologically sound methods of data analysis. These methods often include the translation of ordinary events and experiences, which may appear to be unrelated in their specificity, into abstract conceptual frameworks. Languages like mathematics or the “jargon” of critical theory allow those who master these frameworks to draw connections and reveal patterns that day-to-day descriptions obscure. Learning to reflexively question everything you think you know may be a necessary step in the transformation from being a consumer into a producer of knowledge, but it can have the side-effect of leaving one politically tone-deaf. A friend of mine put it to me recently like this: A PhD candidate in Linguistics is the last person you want proof-reading your essay because they have been so trained to deconstruct every aspect of grammar that they’ve lost their native touch.

This is how I felt when I first started thinking about what it meant to write policy-relevant–or what might more accurately be termed politically-relevant–research. I had nothing to say that was relevant. My research either led to conclusions that were considered irrelevant because the recommendations for action were not politically feasible, or I had no way of mapping a general conclusion onto a specific event without feeling that I was being intellectually irresponsible. Who was I to make such a leap of faith from what I could claim to falsify to a speculative statement about a contemporary problem? (And as Dan Drezner reported in a  blog post in 2010, there are those that feel that this kind of contribution should be accorded to the privileged few with tenure).

Within the first week of operating in a congressional office I was cured of this ailment. Not only are the left and right boundaries of action clear once you are operating on the inside of a political operation, but understanding the way that information flows through Washington has provided me with a new sense of freedom. Everything that academics live and die by is completely irrelevant in these contexts, except that your status as an expert is what gets your foot in the door. What matters is that you are able use the critical thinking abilities that you gained in grad school to navigate this environment with a weird kind of x-ray vision. You can see deeper into an issue than many of your colleagues, but at the same time that ability matters less than timely access to sensitive information. Somehow this makes me feel more entitled to write freely in ways that my inner grad student would tell me were prohibited.

Learning to translate one’s academic expertise into politically relevant knowledge is a different kind of project than the one that academics train for and the Academy values. It requires an individual to want to seek out and develop this extra set of skills. The fact that the academic job market is so much tighter than it was in the 1950’s (back then there weren’t enough people to fill the posts; now there are hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track position) likely makes the disciplinary politics around methodological debates event more brutal than before, but there are also many more people with PhDs who are just as smart or smarter than the professors in the Ivory Tower contributing to public debate.

The price of my current privilege is that my academic and intellectual agenda has to take a back seat to political necessity. Weighing in on the debate about Iran sanctions legislation or the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review is not an option, so I won’t be posting much–at least until my fellowship is over.

Policy Relevance 101: Intellectual promiscuity is bad for your reputation

The American Political Science Association runs a fellowship program that funds political scientists to work on Capitol Hill for a year as a legislative assistant in the office of an individual member or committee. As part of my quest to understand what it means to do “policy-relevant research” I’ve accepted a fellowship position for this academic year. I figure that if you want to learn to talk to policy makers the best way to do that is to become one–listen to the way they talk, what questions they ask, what matters to them and why, and then practice doing those things yourself so that you develop an intuitive sense of how to negotiate that space where policy meets politics and ideas get translated into laws.  

As part of our orientation, APSA arranges for the fellows to meet with individuals from think tanks, lobbying firms, government agencies, and the press. One of the stops on this insider’s tour of Washington was the Heritage Foundation.  The Heritage Foundation “develops and promotes conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense.” A standard account of Heritage’s origin story appeared in a recent article by Julia Iofe from the New Republic:

Edwin Feulner

Edwin Feulner

In 1971, [Edwin Feulner] and Paul Weyrich were two Republican Hill staffers who witnessed President Richard Nixon’s plan to fund a supersonic transport plane defeated in the Senate. Two days later, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), then the only conservative think tank in town, delivered a positive assessment of the plane. When Weyrich asked why the report arrived after the fight was over, the people at AEI told him that they didn’t want to be seen as influencing the vote.

This, the story goes, was why Feulner and Weyrich decided to found Heritage: to influence the vote. It was also why their model focused on short backgrounders, rather than long reports, so that congressmen could get a quick opinion on their way to the floor. Unlike AEI or Brookings across town, Heritage set up shop on the Hill, down the street from Congress. And unlike AEI and Brookings, Heritage was not so much about exploring ideas as it was about pushing a political line. 

According to Iofe, Feulner relished in telling this founding myth and, as I can attest, it is still a proud part of his legacy at the organization. We heard the story second hand from  Edward Corrigan, a group vice president for policy promotion. Corrigan is a recent hire who arrived at Heritage with former Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) in 2013 when Demint took over from Feulner as President. The choice of DeMint to replace Feulner was controversial because unlike Feulner, Demint does not have a PhD. DeMint is not a policy wonk; he is a politician. His selection coincides with the growth of Heritage Action, an advocacy arm founded in 2010, and has tipped the careful balance of power between politics and policy at Heritage Foundation firmly in favor of politics. Iofe again:

Jim DeMint

Jim DeMint

DeMint also brought in his own management lineup from his Senate days: Ed Corrigan, Wesley Denton, and Bret Bernhardt. At Heritage, the three became DeMint’s enforcers. There is now a political check on all Heritage research papers to make sure they conform to the political and tactical line before they go out the door. Corrigan killed one such paper, defending the law authorizing National Security Agency practices as constitutional, only to have the Brookings Institution, a relatively liberal think tank, publish it. Corrigan also put the kibosh on several policy papers on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including one by Heritage scholar Edmund Haislmaier about what states should do on Medicare expansion. Because the official Heritage strategy was now to defund Obamacare, any paper acceding to a reality in which the law existed was verboten. The scandalous Heritage report on immigration, co-authored by a scholar who had once claimed that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites, was also the product of DeMint’s approach: Policy analysts were shut out of the discussion, and the paper, which was written to conform with DeMint’s anti-immigration stance, did not go through the standard vetting procedure.

Corrigan and three Heritage Foundation scholars met with our group. They were all white men that, with the exception of Corrigan who is quite striking with his pre-maturely silver hair (you can see a picture here), looked so much alike that I would not be able to pick them out of a line up (having failed to note their names, I actually went to the Heritage Foundation website to try and identify them from their photos and couldn’t do it).

Washington etiquette, and the terms of my fellowship, prevent me from reporting the details of our discussion, but I can certainly share my experience of the event. Personally, it was excruciating sitting through the presentations from Corrigan and his colleagues, especially since many of their positions on civil rights are in direct conflict with my own interests and experience. And, I was not the only one squirming in my chair. Many of the questions my colleagues asked were vaguely, if not openly, confrontational.

Initially I wanted to get up and walk out, but then I began to channel my anger into seeing this as an opportunity to learn how these Heritage scholars think about negotiating the boundary between politics and policy. They work at an organization that, unlike “liberal think tanks” such as Brookings whose policy analysts could, and do, make conflicting policy recommendations, is explicitly committed to conservative public policy. I wondered how self-aware they were about the epistemological implications of this position. On the one hand, what they are doing appears to violate the basic foundation of mainstream social science research in America, namely that the minimum standard of good research is not whether or not it accords with a set of values-based criteria, but rather that it must meet criteria of falsifiability. You have to be able to answer the question, “How do I know if I’m wrong?” On the other hand, there is something vaguely Marxist in their insistence that all think tanks have a political agenda. If all knowledge is value-laden, perhaps they could argue that they make their agenda explicit while others hide behind a veneer of objectivity. I decided to try and find out if they are as intellectually promiscuous as they appear.

In spite of the highly unlikely possibility of hearing a defensible “Marxist” argument come out of their mouths, I wanted to ask my question in a way that gave them them just enough rope to either save or hang themselves. Already having been told repeatedly, and only half-jokingly, not to use words like “hypothesis” and “epistemology” in Washington, I asked, “If you are committed to a conservative political agenda, yet you perform fact-based research, what do you do with the data that does not support your political position?” After I finished the room fell silent and one of my APSA colleagues simply said “Boom.” Without repeating anything that the Heritage fellows actually said, my impression was that none of them had spent much time thinking about it. Corrigan offered a canned response that did not address the question at hand, but one of the Heritage fellows did appear to grapple honestly with the possibility that reality might diverge from his idealized version of it. It was as if the idea had never really occurred to him before, in which case he is not intellectually promiscuous at all. It’s worse: He’s a true-believer, fully committed to the cause.