What is policy relevant, anyways?

Here we go again. It seems like every year or so some writer dusts of his or her “Timeless Ideas” notebook, turns to the “P” section and decides to rail against the current state of political science. This time the honors go to Tom Ricks, who is not particularly impressed with the latest issue of International Security. Because the world is full of dread and danger, the content of the journal, and by extension all of political science, is woefully irrelevant. The charge itself should not warrant a long response, but it made me think about a deeper question: What is policy relevant, anyways?

My impression from various conversations is that what academics think policymakers want from scholarship resembles a caricature. They want clear recommendations, preferably in bullet points, with pie charts or catchy historical anecdotes to support the argument. This is not true. If anything, political scientists overestimate top-level policymakers’ patience, as they would much prefer a one-page memo. However, that still leaves a rather large potential audience for scholarship, particularly in the military (I have lost count of how many officers I have taken classes with during my time at Boston University and UT Austin).

If we then have already conceded the President to Thomas Friedman (sort of), how do we reach the others? A couple of years ago I was working on an international military concept development project that focused on access to the global commons. Most of the background material came from think tanks, but one piece of scholarship that ‘everyone’ seemed to mention was Barry Posen’s “Command of the Commons.” It is not hard to imagine why a bunch of colonels would like the article. It is full of details on military forces, posture, and technology, and deals primarily with strategy. Beyond the subject matter though, the article offers a clear argument in a transparent manner. I believe the last two points are key.

At this point, an attentive reader would go, “Hey, Hans, just because it’s clearly written and argued doesn’t make it policy relevant.” True. There is certainly scholarship that does not have an immediate relevance, either because it is too theoretical, or because it is too niche (I will refrain from linking to examples of the latter, glass house and all). Apart from these areas of political science, I think there is a wealth of scholarship that is or could be policy relevant.

When discussing relevance, and accessibility, we have to distinguish between empirical work and theoretical work. Apart from bad writing (which happens a lot), the two have different hurdles in reaching a wider audience. The problem with a lot of quantitative work is that it is not particularly transparent. You need advanced methods training to understand the cutting edge stuff. When you are already presenting counter-intuitive findings, you got a big mountain to climb to reach the policy-maker at the top. As for theoretical work, it can be too abstract or general for use in policy or military planning nike; the ideas might be clear, but its immediate utility might not be particularly obvious.

Since I am not a methodologist, I will refrain from commenting on how to make empirical work more relevant (besides better writing). On theoretical work though, I would argue that there is significant potential for being policy relevant. The literature on bargaining theory is one of the most important developments in the study of international conflict in the past 20 years, but much of it is cloaked in game theory and formal modeling. The basic insights though, and the epistemic approach in general, makes bargaining theory quite useful for developing analytical thinking in a sequential and parsimonious way. There are even examples of abstract models combined with exemplary historical work. For instance, Andrew Kydd’s work on trust-building during the Cold War is both theoretically insightful and empirically valuable.

While this literature might not be “relevant” enough for Ricks (if he thinks International Security is irrelevant, I would pay money to see him read International Theory or International Organization), it can still inform policymakers and military leaders’ thinking. Theory helps shape how we view the world, but it is often challenging to consume, internalize, and synthesize. We might then have to think of the relevance of theory was a didactic process, rather than a source of profound insight. Instead of using realism to say “balancing happens,” we can use bargaining theory to help develop analytical skills.

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