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.