Thursday, September 25, 2014

Various Ruminations about Policy Relevance

Once again, I have gotten sucked into debating about the policy relevance of political science.  I left some scraps out of the more recent posts because I was engaging specific people on specific points.  But I wanted to get a few more things off my chest:
  • Looking at the APSR or other very academic journals and saying this is not for policy-makers is missing the point.  Academic journals are aimed at academics and rightly so.  This is our conversation to argue with each other, not to engage the public.  
  • Why are academic pubs important and generally the requirement for tenure?  Because to have credibility as a researcher, we need to prove we can do research.  That the stuff is peer-reviewed, that it builds upon existing work (lit review) and that it is well-designed (the methods section--how do you know what you think you know). 
  • Which means that most junior faculty are going to write in those outlets and not be focused as much on policy relevance.  Which is actually ok. That is, it makes sense to me that the rookies not be relied upon for offering advice to the policy world.  It makes more sense that those with proven track records of doing good work are the ones who can engage the policy community.
    • Some argue that once you learn to write in jargon that you cannot go back.  I think that is wrong.  (Sorry, Tom N.)
  • I am not as convinced as others that people who popularize or do policy relevance are punished.  The two competitors for my last job both had real policy experience, and that was seen as a plus.  That may not be true everywhere, but I don't think people look at folks with some policy experience as lepers.  That is an old stereotype.  
  • And I now contradict myself, as the new generation of scholars is proving that you can do both.  That they are doing really interesting research and are communicating that to scholars view traditional peer-reviewed outlets and beyond via blogs, twitter, policy journals.  I see far more younger names in Foreign Affairs and its online outlet than I ever saw ten or twenty or thirty years ago. 
  • I do think there are bigger problems shaping policy relevance than the will/capability of political scientists and it is not our incentive structure but that of those we want to persuade.  There is a big difference between having a great idea about how to improve a social problem (prevent war, build multi-ethnic democracies, whatever) and pitching that idea in what at is in the political interest of the folks that need to listen.  
  • And there is heaps of confirmation bias going on.  That I notice that which I want to see (the Monkey Cage, Political Violence at a Glance, the Korbel folks) and don't see what I don't want to see.  Same goes for the other side of the argument.  Alas, this applies even more to the policy-makers who are blind to their own confirmation bias--they will notice the social science that supports their preferred policy options and ignore the rest.  How do we fight that?  Damned if I know. 
  • and a semi-related note: those people who complain about the contemporary state of Security Studies are just as wrong as wrong can be.  The field is far better now than twenty years ago.  The historiography is better, the use of numbers is actually a plus and not a minus, the range of questions and expertise is far more diverse, and the folks involved are far more diverse.  It is not the old boys network of the past (which is why some people are frustrated).  Security Studies is much, much, much better than it used to be.  It is no longer focused on the force to space ratio along the inter-German frontier, and we are so much the better for that.
I certainly don't think the status quo is good or acceptable, but where I diverge from Tom Nichols (@TheWarRoom) is that I think we are making progress.  Where I diverge with the other Tom (Ricks) is that there is a method to our madness and rightly so.  Making shit up (Kaplan, Clash of Civ) is inferior to doing our best research, including being explicit about how we know what we know.

Systematic study is better than random study.  Sure, that is a controversial position, but I will stick with it.

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