Last September, Stephen Walt gave a talk at Brown University on lamenting the discipline of IR’s lack of engagement with the public sphere, and put forward some suggestions on what could be done to increase the relevance and impact of university research. (He also repeatedly blogged about this topic.)
We’d like to summarize his major points here and add our view on the debate.
IR scholars don’t reach anyone beyond their own circles
“We often tell ourselves we are speaking truth to power”, Walt said, “but most of the time the powerful aren’t listening”. In other words, while IR scholarship could in theory make important contributions to the public sphere, in practice their output doesn’t make its way to policy makers and the public. But why not?
The most important reason, according to Walt, is the gradual professionalization of academia – the reliance on specialized jargon and techniques that make our work hard for outsiders to understand and evaluate. Moreover, the criteria by which we judge ourselves systematically discourage public engagement. Writing for popular audiences is seen as a sign that an academic job candidate is “not serious”, and departments place too great an emphasis on research productivity compared to research impact. Finally, professionalization discourages academics – professors and students alike – from tackling contentious political issues, and students are taught to shy away from anything that looks like an overt political stance.
Of course there are some dangers in academics getting too close to policy makers and government. Walt argues that academics might give into the temptation to stop speaking truth to power, and instead “start telling the powerful what we think they want to hear.”
Eight suggestions to change the profession
So how do we strike a balance, as he asks, between “hyper-professionalized irrelevance” on the one hand, and “corrupt opportunism” on the other? Walt has eight suggestions:
- Give greater weight to real world impact when evaluating scholars and departments (important public outreach activities like blogging could be encouraged, instead of viewed with suspicion).
- Offer incentives for public service and engagement – academics like to get awards!
- Encourage junior scholars to engage with the public sphere and even seek experience outside of academia.
- Engage directly with policy-makers and knowledgeable citizens, especially when deciding what issues to address – ask Hillary Clinton (and John Kerry) what mystifies them!
- Convince university administrators to value public engagement. One way to do this is make funding bodies take into account public utility of research.
- Broaden the discussion of academic ethics and responsibilities; do academics have an obligation to contribute to the society that supports us?
- Reconfigure the entire field of international studies by distancing it from (American) political science, which relies on quantitative methodologies which are not overly well suited to IR’s unreliable or imprecise data.
- Place a greater emphasis on teaching – we may exert our greatest impact on the public sphere by what we do in the classroom.
Grad students’ perspective
We agree with almost all of these points (especially what he said about the immense value of blogging). From our rather limited experience as PhD students, without an in-depth knowledge of university politics and hiring processes, here are a few thoughts:
Zoe: I certainly question the utility of academic work that relies on extremely complex methods or that focuses on such narrow topics as to be completely impenetrable to a wider audience. Especially as a student of political science and IR, I can’t imagine what purpose academics in our field could possibly think they have, if not to contribute to public debate, policy-making and ultimately, (hopefully), to make things a little bit better. If you don’t think your work can do that, why do it?
Moreover, I think encouraging young academics to step outside the academy is inherently useful and shouldn’t be too hard to do – my former university provides a decent example of this. I did my MA in an International Development program where students were encouraged to take semesters off to work in the government, in embassies or with NGOs. In addition, many of the faculty in the program, and the closely linked public policy school, took public engagement very seriously – writing blogs, editorials and even books aimed at popular audiences. While development and public policy programs are much more “applied” than the discipline IR, I think that IR programs could benefit greatly from this openness to life outside the ivory tower.
Of course, I don’t think we should underestimate the dangers of too great an emphasis on the usefulness of academic research. While as individuals and as a discipline we should ask ourselves what we want our work to achieve, I also question the value of only holding academic work to outside standards. In an era of austerity and (at least in North America) some degree of conservative anti-intellectualism, academics should work to combat the idea that knowledge has no inherent value. In the past few years, the Canadian funding agencies for both social science/humanities and natural science research have reworked their criteria for funding, overtly privileging work that has direct “business” applications. I don’t think this bodes well for the future of both basic scientific research and social science work outside of economics and business schools.
Of course, this is not what Walt is talking about, but I fear that today, having “an impact” is often conflated with “is marketable”. This is not what academia should be striving for in our quest for relevance.
What about Europe / Germany?
Mathis: I wonder whether Walt’s remarks apply less or even more in the German and European context. What he says about the sociology of the field certainly rings a bell. German professors used to enjoy many privileges and I’m not sure in which direction the recent changes will move hiring and other practices.
The growing reliance on third-party funding for research probably puts scientists under increasing pressure to market their ideas. As the recent discussion about NSF funding in the U.S. has shown, politicians might pressure researchers to consider societal goals in their applications: In order to access the European Union’s funds for social science research, you’d better make sure your project contributes to the “expected impacts listed in the work programme under the relevant topic/activity”. Yet the people judging the grant proposal will not be policymakers, but fellow scholars – so the mechanisms of specialization still work.
What about selection processes within the profession? From my limited experience in applying for PhD positions, things are looking better than they used to. In the old German system, to get a professor to supervise your PhD, you had to know the person and convince her of your seriousness. Now, graduate schools seem to have a broader list of admission criteria and care about diversity. Insiders still enjoy advantages from their knowledge of how to apply, and because professors might vouch for people they know. But overall I feel the current system might be better suited to get people from different backgrounds into academia.
Given the current situation on the job market, perhaps nowadays more graduates start working on their dissertation even though they would rather work for a business or an NGO. Assuming they don’t get completely “professionalized”, they could develop into the people Walt is waiting for – eager and capable to bridge the divide between academia and the rest of the world.
What about outreach and impact? From what I have seen so far, it seems that very few political scientists are active in politics. Mostly, scientists are invited to present their research results in talk shows or interviews, but seldom make their case in favor of or against a certain proposal. They are analysts, not advocates. This role might change in expert committees with decision-making power, but even there the full-time policymakers usually dominate. (As a very famous German political scientist recently complained, “nobody listens to us professors”.)
Maybe IR scholars should try harder. As far as I know, the blogging scene is extremely underdeveloped compared to the U.S., and I don’t see many German professors on Twitter (or on opinion pages in newspapers). There seems to be some truth to Walt’s remarks about the fear to “not appear serious enough”. A former professor at FU published his hugely successful novels under a pseudonym. And the non-fiction bestseller list in Germany doesn’t exactly feature many scientists.
Finally, some stats: 52 of the 620 current members of the German parliament have studied political science. 7 out of 620 were faculty members at a university prior to joining the Bundestag. My guess is that none of them will ever read a blog about IR.