From the Ivory Tower to the Halls of Power - Recasting Relevance in International Relations

Are rigorous political science methods driving the discipline to policy irrelevance in international relations? Michael Desch’s recent article in Perspectives on Politics suggests it’s possible. Polling of policymakers also backs up the claim: those engaged with policy seem to have little time for the most sophisticated research methods. Moreover, these findings match the conventional wisdom within some policy circles that political science has little relevance to policy. Even some scholars turned policymakers suggest the same. While Desch’s conclusions are being hotly discussed and debated, the dialogue misses an essential point. As my time working both with government and conducting scholarly research has taught me, there is no clear dividing line between scholarship and policy-making. Our debates should reflect this reality.

A disaggregation of the community of international affairs scholars and practitioners recasts the debate. Not all scholarship needs to be all things to all audiences. There is a spectrum of research that is conducted – and translated – from the ivory tower to the halls of power. We can refine this chain of intellectual custody by focusing on the intent and the potential audiences of political science inquiry. If we also appreciate a diversity of scholarly careers, the debate is no longer just about the relevance of political science to policymaking; it is a conversation about improving the quality of both scholarship and policy. These are far more interesting ways to carry on the discussion.

The fallacy of two distinct camps imagines one inhabited by academically detached political scientists and the other by busy, hair-on-fire policymakers. Today, if ever, this is hardly the case. Rather, there is a spectrum across which the entire study and practice of international relations falls. One end is anchored by senior policymakers and their staffs driven by day-to-day demands. The other is held down by political scientists working at the cutting edge of method and theory, with minimal interest in immediate policy relevance. Everyone else falls somewhere between these poles.

At one end we might find those engaged in long-term policy planning within government, applying their own implicit or explicit worldviews about how international politics work to their daily activities. The median might be occupied by scholars at APSIA schools like Johns Hopkins University SAIS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, or George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, among others, who explicitly strive for research that will influence government. Professors in traditional political science departments seriously considering the policy implications of their work may be closer to the academic extreme, but many really occupy a broad middle range, doing research that may well have policy implications if carefully interpreted. Opposite the pole of policy, the more methods-driven disciplinary work in political science seeks to uncover rules of inference or fundamental mechanisms of political action for the sake of the academic knowledge alone. To aggregate all of these into artificial categories of “academic” and “policymaker” misses the diversity of the wider field and the connections within it.

Just as there is a spectrum of those engaged in the study and practice of international relations, so too is there a spectrum of research. The busiest policymakers will never have time to read the American Political Science Review and, frankly, they should avoid it. Such research, aimed at building theory or testing methodology, is generally hard to translate into something useful in addressing practical issues. And this is fine. Not every scholar should engage in “policy relevant” research. Doing so may in fact negatively affect the development of novel methodological or theoretical approaches. Instead, it is up to scholars and policymakers at different points along the international relations career spectrum to begin the refining and translation process that takes an APSR article’s conclusions and crafts them into a product that could be useful to government policy. This process should imbue the findings of pure research with the concerns and language of policy institutions, perhaps the history of policy discussions, application to emerging issues, insights from official reports, disposition of particular principals, and the buzzwords of a bureaucracy, among others. There are already outlets like VoxEU and Project Syndicate that are making welcome strides in translating scholarship for wider audiences, but this is just a start.

To this end, Colin Kahl, a professor at Georgetown University, who is no stranger to government service, made an insightful point during a recent American Political Science Association annual meeting. He commented that scholarly work might be thought of as a Russian nesting doll. The outermost layer is a finely crafted piece of research that has employed the best methodology and theory available at the time. This might be published in a top peer-reviewed journal. Inside this largest doll may be a smaller one, less detailed but more concentrated, akin to a policy article in a journal like Foreign Affairs. Inside that might be a well-placed article in a national newspaper highlighting the most policy relevant portions from a new piece of scholarship, and inside that might ultimately be a memo to a policymaker directly applying the heart of the research to an issue of the day. This is a helpful analogy with relevance for publication strategies. While some scholars and practitioners may well be able to craft every sized doll, it is more likely that individuals should stick to their strengths and work in areas best suited to their training, interests, and temperament. We need not be all things to all people.

Finally, there is the issue of career pluralism. Rather than setting one’s sights solely on attaining a tenured position in a political science department, toward which PhD candidates often find themselves pushed, there should be wider acceptance of alternative professional paths. Research careers in policy-oriented schools, independent research organizations, within government, and even in the private sector ought to be increasingly valued. If the academy bemoans the lack of high-quality research outside of universities alone, this might be solved by encouraging graduates from programs in serious research universities to consider research careers outside academia in addition to traditional tenure-track positions. As a practical matter, the status distinctions attached to different endeavors ought to be scaled back, especially in light of the dwindling numbers of traditional academic jobs available to even the most qualified graduates. Encouragingly, almost two thirds of scholars polled in the latest College of William and Mary TRIP survey suggested there should be more policy career preparation for graduate students. This message should be disseminated at professional conferences, prospective student visits, and throughout political science departments. A better appreciation of different career paths and research directions will inform professionals in comparative and international politics, and could help to bring the latest research even closer to the policy practitioner.

Moving away from the false dichotomy of distinct camps, accepting the value of diverse scholarship, writing across a range of mediums, and encouraging career diversity will better mingle those studying and practicing international relations. Rather than wondering about the abstract “relevance” of the discipline, our focus can more usefully be on quality and effectiveness. We can move academics, practitioners, and all those falling in between increasingly toward the discussion and application of empirically informed, rigorously considered policy. This would be a welcome step forward not just in this disciplinary debate, but for governments and people around the world. Let’s start that conversation.


A. Bradley Potter is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS who spent over five years supporting the U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration as a member of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. He thanks Nate Allen, Yunnan Chen, Carla Freeman, Peter Lewis, Matthias Matthijs, Carlos Salazar, and Emily Skow for their thoughtful comments on this post.

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