The Problem of Bridging the Gap

So, I have been harshly critical of the obsession with “policy relevance” as a criterion for which to judge both the value of political science and the the behaviors and professional orientation of political scientists. For me, it amounts to doing several things:

  1. It judges the value of academic inquiry from the perspective of whether or not it concords with the values, aims, preferences, and policy concerns and goals of a few powerful elites. Why, if anything, do we judge “policy relevance” by whether or not it helps government policy elites? Surely governmental elites, politicians, think-tankers, etc aren’t the only people who care about policy! The “policy relevance” model is simply a normatively unjustified statement that political scientists and social scientists in general ought to cater to the desires and whims of elite governmental policymakers.
  2. It demands that academic inquiry ought to be formulated around the whims and desires of the people being studied. One does not see this demand outside of the political science policy relevance wars. No one asks psychologists whether experiments are “relevant” to lab rats because it would be absurd to base research around what the experimental subject wants. Psychologists also do not care whether or not the college students that are paid to populate their experiments find their research “relevant” or understandable. Nor do neuroscientists inquire about the preferences of neuronal populations or biologists the opinions of ant colonies. Yet political scientists ought to cater to a narrow set of policy elites that they (partly) study?
  3. It makes no demands on the policymakers themselves. If policy-relevant research is as useful to government as “policy relevance” critics claim (I have my doubts about such a sweeping judgement but I will entertain the notion), then government ought to subsidize it. Compared to the Cold War’s heights, government funding for applied social science research has declined dramatically. If policymakers want research that fits a certain template and focus, they could pay for it. Instead, they want social scientists to — pro bono— customize research to their preferences and translate it into a form that policymakers can digest. This goes beyond just the lack of government acting to fund, guide, and direct research. It also amounts to laziness in the expectation that the researcher must translate the work. Why not hire an intern to read a political science article and turn into a memo or a PowerPoint slide deck?
  4. It allows questions and projects to be assigned from above rather than discovered, and substitutes political efficiency for scientific contribution as a review criteria. If we accept that politicians and policymakers are the best judges of whether or not research in political science is useful, then do not be surprised if the research questions and methods are dictated “from above” by political actors. Also do not be surprised if notions of peer review is replaced by review from the standpoint of whether a particular piece of political science research is effacious or useful to a particular political elite group. After all, what is “relevant” to a policymaker is by definition in the eye of the beholder. Counterinsurgency was not “relevant” to policymakers during the first part of the Iraq War only for them to become obsessed with it once the war started going badly. Policymakers should have felt lucky that a select few studied counterinsurgency despite the lack of policy “relevance” and the fact that it was considered a formerly an obscure and cloistered subject even among strategic studies and security specialists.

Now, some may counter that political science isn’t a science (using an arbitrary and inconsistent definition of science) so all of these arguments are moot. Daniel Drezner has argued that political scientists ought to accept this as simply the cost of the game. Accept, in other words, that a large audience of policymakers will never try accept political science as a science and try to change communication strategies. While I don’t disagree with Drezner’s core message — that political scientists ought to communicate like public intellectuals — there is a thin line between being strategic and conceding to the desires of people (elites) who will always have an antagonistic relationship to research that (1) often does not do anything instrumentally useful for them, as Drezner has laid out and (2) tells them messages that they do not want to hear and objectively gain little from hearing.

If I am Joe Policymaker, I want, crudely, to advance my own political interests and gain/maintain power. And political scientists that talk about policy relevance are either disingenous or shockingly naive in their basic denial of this and assumption that political actors want what they are selling — journal article or breezy op-ed alike.

Imagine the following scenario.

Joe Policymaker does not want to commit to a ground campaign in the region of Bumfuckistan. His preference is to contain the rebel group that has occupied a sizable landmass in Bumfuckistan because political constraints and his (and his cabinet’s) preferences mitigate against invading Bumfuckistan to expel the rebel army. He wants to handle the problem with a combination of air strikes and half-hearted aid to “moderates” and wait out the problem long enough to hand it to his successor.

Along comes Joe Political Scientist, who wants to “bridge the gap” by presenting his “policy relevant” research to Joe Policymaker.

Joe Political Scientist: “Hey Joe Policymaker! How are you doing?”

Joe Policymaker: *grimace* *thinks ‘oh its him again, what does he want now?’*

Joe Political Scientist: “I got some POLICY-RELEVANT research that I know you’re gonna love! It’s relevant to your Bumfuckistan problem, and I even took the trouble of taking all of the math and jargon out of it just for you!”

Joe Policymaker: “Ok, what is it?”

Joe Political Scientist: “So, I see that you’re trying to ‘destroy’ a rebel group almost solely from the air. I ran the numbers and did the case studies, and didja know that ground strategies are more likely to defeat rebel groups than bombing solely from the air? If you don’t believe me I even brought my R code along so you can replicate it!!”

Joe Policymaker slams the door in Joe Political Scientist’s face. The next day, the doorbell rings and its Jane Political Scientist.

Jane Political Scientist: “Hey Joe Policymaker! How are you doing?”

Joe Policymaker: *grimace* *thinks ‘oh its her again, what does she want now?’*

Jane Political Scientist: “I got some POLICY-RELEVANT research that I know you’re gonna love! It’s relevant to your Bumfuckistan problem, and I even took the trouble of taking all of the math and jargon out of it just for you!”

Joe Policymaker: “Ok, what is it?”

Jane Political Scientist: “So, I see that you are trying to handle the Bumfuckistan problem in a way that avoids handing off the problem to your successor. So I did a study about strategies that policymakers in ambigous wars fought from the air can use to avoid passing off — — “

Joe Policymaker slams the door on Jane Political Scientist. He turns to his chief of staff.

Joe Policymaker: “Is there a ‘do not call list’ I can get on so these people will stop bothering me?”

Chief of Staff: “Unfortunately, no. You see, these poor fools have this notion called ‘policy relevance’ and ‘bridging the gap’. They are going to throw all of the research they have produced at us, regardless if it actually helps us with the goal we’re actually trying to pursue.”

Joe Policymaker: “Can’t we just put out an ad on Craigslist saying ‘political scientist wanted to help me avoid a lengthy ground campaign and pass the burden of a complex policy issue to the next president’ or something?”

Chief of Staff: “Well, Mr. President, we can’t actually say that in public even though everyone really knows that’s we’re trying to do — except for those clueless political scientists.”

Joe Policymaker: “Oh, right. Damn. Oh well.”

That, in a nutshell, is the problem. Political scientists have this strange, naive belief that policymakers are just uninterested actors looking for the best advice they can find and if only they could be fed the political science in a form that their unique tribe understands everything would be a-ok. It’s almost as if political scientists — who study the strategic behavior of political actors — throw all of their own research out the window when naively formulating their notions of policy relevance.

If you think this is overly cynical, consider the justifications behind Uzbekistan’s banning of political science:

It therefore came as little surprise last week when the government banned the teaching of political science, on the grounds that it is a western pseudo-science that does not take the “Uzbek model” of development into account. In a decree issued on 24 August and later made public, higher education minister Alisher Vakhabov ordered that the words “political science” be dropped from the name of the last remaining course in the subject widely taught in the country, which will now be called The Theory and Practice of Building a Democratic Society in Uzbekistan. It also required universities to move all literature relating to political science from the “general fund to a special fund”, which means students and academics will need permission to access it.

The order effectively banned political science as an academic subject, according to Farkhad Tolipov, a well-known political scientist who used to teach at the National University of Uzbekistan and now heads an independent education and research institution, Bilim Karvoni, in Tashkent. Tolipov penned an open letter against the decision, which he said resembled the Soviet-era campaign against “pseudo-sciences” including political science, and was made on the recommendation of conservative officials who “have practically no knowledge of this discipline”.

Tolipov told the Observer: “This decision to cancel political science simply corresponds to the character and nature of an authoritarian system, for which political science probably looks like an inexplicable irritant and is not a science at all.” In the decree, Vakhabov cited the findings of a working group summoned to evaluate the discipline, which argued that political science does not use scientific methods, examines topics that are already studied by other disciplines, and uses textbooks which are based solely on western literature. The group also criticised the discipline for not including the “Uzbek model” of development, regardless of the fact that in reality this model looks like a typical dictatorship.

But who are we to criticize the Uzbeks? After all, they determined that political science was not “policy relevant” to the actual policies of the Uzbek dictatorship — maintaining a post-Soviet authoritarian state! All of those people who penned articles decrying cloistered political science academics that pretend that their obscure, scholastic discipline is a “science” ought to rejoice and applaud the Uzbek government for taking this critical and decisive step. Those darn political scientists were just unwilling to “bridge the gap” and make their research accessible to policymakers. They just insisted on substituting their silly political science instead of just yielding to the common sense that the Uzbek model was correct!

As such, the Uzbeks and their policymakers rightly punished those isolated and uncooperative pseudoscientists for their policy irrelevance; they took away their funding and made political science work dependent on satisfying the whims of government officials. Who cares if those government officials aren’t qualified to evaluate the research? After all, they are policymakers, so according to at least a third of those people who publish essays about the policy-academia gap, their desires and wishes ought to be considered in evaluating the quality of political science research right? Didn’t Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, two political scientists that teach at top universities, say this? And they ought to know, right?

Now, intentionally reductive satire aside, I do believe that political scientists and other social scientists have something to contribute to policy. However, we should recognize that academic knowledge is only useful to political actors in instrumental terms. And by instrumental I mean, “relevant to the specific goals those actors want to achieve and the preferences they have.” Political scientists ought to not accept the canard that the specific goals and preferences of policy elites is a criterion they ought to use in developing and evaluating their own work. It is only a criterion that ought to be used to develop and evaluate their own work from the standpoint of how it helps a policy elite group.

There is nothing wrong, in theory, for developing applied work that benefits policy elites. Some of America’s most famous social scientists thrived in doing so, and developed interesting new research ideas and findings out of it. But let us be clear exactly what “policy relevance” really means, lest we validate critiques of social scientists as mere handmaidens to power. Moreover, the current gap between policymaker expectations of political science research and political science research is a function of mismatched expectations on both sides.

If policymakers just admitted that they want research that serves their own political interests and political scientists admitted that policymakers do not care in the slightest about research ideas and subjects that political scientists are passionate about, the problem would be solved. Military officers do research about equally complex issues and propose courses of action but do so within political constraints set by their political masters. If political scientists want to be technicians of politics much in the way the professional soldier is a technician and specialist in organized violence, then the so-called “gap” between academia and policy will vanish in seconds.

The problem is that policymakers have not created the proper set of incentives (akin to the ones that underpinned Cold War era social science research) to make such a lifestyle and ethos attractive to most political scientists. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and policymakers simply are getting what they are paying for.

If there’s a conclusion to this rant, it’s this.

First, stop conflating the whims of elite policymakers with “policy relevance.” It’s disingeneous, because what you are really doing is conflating policy relevance with “relevant to the goals and aims of specific policy elites.” Second, stop using “policy relevance” and anti-intellectual arguments (“it’s too obscure! it has too much jargon! it’s not accessible to the average layman”) as a club to beat fellow social scientists with. But most importantly…stop being so [expletive] naive about how knowledge and science intersects with policy and politics.

If there is one problem with how political scientists communicate with policymakers, is that they disregard the difference between science and power. By engaging with power, they are not disinterested academics anymore but players in a n-level game, and coordinating with their policy counterparts requires an appreciation of what the revealed preferences of policymakers actually are. The government has its own cadre of researchers at institutions like RAND, MITRE, and IDA to produce highly technical and high-quality research that is relevant to what it actually wants, and gets the rest from a handpicked group of policy figures that function as “ideas men” in DC. What, if anything, special do you realistically offer them that both groups they already consult do not provide? What is your comparative advantage? Do you even understand what the policymaker wants and finds useful to begin with? If you can’t answer that question, stripping the math and jargon out of your research won’t do a damn thing in terms of getting it noticed by policymakers.

PhD student in Computational Social Science. Fellow at New America Foundation (all content my own). Strategy, simulation, agents. Aspiring cyborg scientist.

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