Foreign Policy

Past IR’s Ivory Tower

For years, prominent international relations (IR) scholars have openly criticized the field for privileging “rigor over relevance,” offering little practical advice to those who live and work outside the ivory tower. For example, the professor Stephen Van Evera argues that traditional discipline promotes a “cult of the irrelevant”—“an internal discussion of arcane questions that the wider world is not asking.” On the other hand, scholars such as Ido Oren and Adam Elkus reject the idea that political scientists should make themselves policy-relevant and argue that doing so biases political science by encouraging academics to cater to the “whims of elite governmental policymakers.”

Are these concerns well founded—are IR scholars too removed from the policy world? Or should we worry that academics are distorting their findings for policy audiences?

In 2019, the Sie Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and the TRIP Project at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute collaborated on a survey to gauge IR scholars’ perceptions of policy engagement within their field. The results of the survey, from 971 respondents at U.S. colleges and universities, reveal that IR scholars are more engaged than the “cult of the irrelevant” discourse suggests. The findings highlight a significant gap in perceptions between IR scholars and their employers regarding the importance of engagement for promotion and tenure, with many scholars saying that universities should value policy-engaged activities more than they do.

Though respondents expressed some concern that scholars might distort their beliefs and opinions for policy audiences, few reported doing so themselves. Overall, it appears that IR scholars are engaged in policy activities despite a lack of professional incentives to do so: Faculty members do not perceive that engaged policy work enhances prospects for tenure and promotion. Nevertheless, their engagement is deeper and more widespread than might be expected given the prevailing criticism.

If the failed U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals anything, it is that government officials should draw on the knowledge of experts to inform policy decisions. Policy crafted without attention to expert knowledge has produced avoidable loss of life on a massive scale, a collapse in the United States’ international reputation, and an economic crisis. But a lack of policy engagement by members of the ivory tower doesn’t account for practitioners’ failure to heed expert advice. The survey data shows that policy engagement among IR scholars is the norm, not the exception—even if universities don’t adequately reward it.

A substantial proportion of the experts who participated in the survey had experience in the policy world before entering academia. Almost half (48 percent) had some work experience in the policy world, and 38 percent reported working in the policy world for six months or more. Generally, prior policy experience didn’t seem to be linked to academic rank, but a larger proportion of chaired professors have more than six months of policy experience. In short, if the ivory tower were failing to engage with real-world problems, it would be doing so in spite of broad scholarly interest and experience with such issues.

Some form of continued engagement with the policy world—writing op-eds, media appearances, writing reports, consulting activities—was the norm for a large number of respondents. Only 7 percent reported never engaging in some form of policy-related activity, and there was no evidence of a trend away from engagement among younger scholars. In fact, while older scholars report more frequent engagement, younger scholars were less likely than their older colleagues to not engage at all over the past five years.

These results accord with the advent of what George Washington University’s Marc Lynch calls “a golden age of academic engagement with the public sphere”—in part linked to the number of online outlets where scholars increasingly share their work and the growth in funding and fellowship opportunities available to academics with policy interests. Publishing bylined pieces in prestigious but non-peer-reviewed outlets is a low-cost, high-reward means of policy engagement. The readership of outlets like Foreign Policy and the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog includes policy practitioners as well as the same group of scholars with whom academics want to build a reputation.

Deeper engagement, including consulting for government agencies or nonprofits, often takes a significant amount of time and offers fewer opportunities for recognition: Briefings with Senate staffers or members of the intelligence community, for example, are rarely bylined. Despite these barriers, 41 percent of respondents had written policy briefs for government agencies, advocacy organizations, or think tanks, and a greater percentage (49 percent) had engaged in consulting activities.

This high degree of policy engagement is consistent with the belief, held by 70 percent of respondents, that policy engagement enhances the quality of their teaching and research—providing real-world examples for the classroom and a policy-practitioner network for interviews, data, and funding opportunities.

Respondents are more divided over putting country before party. Despite significant opposition to the Trump administration within academic circles, some scholars reported that they were willing to engage with the policy community regardless of who occupied the Oval Office—even despite the current administration’s general hostility toward experts. The next four years could look quite different for policy engagement depending on who wins in the November election.

When asked whether they considered the identity of the president when deciding whether to engage with the government, 36 percent reported that they did not take it into account, while a slightly larger proportion (41 percent) reported that they did. Partisanship and low levels of support for the Trump administration may make these responses atypical: Only 17 percent of self-identified Republicans said they took the identity of the president into account compared to almost half of Democrats. Significantly, the types of engagement reported and the frequency of that engagement were similar regardless of whether the respondent said that they conditioned their engagement with the government in particular on the identity of the president.

More than at any other time since World War II, addressing America’s myriad and severe problems—the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, global economic crisis—requires more engagement from experts in general and IR scholars specifically. Contrary to criticism about the “cult of the irrelevant,” many of our colleagues stand ready.

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