Policy Relevance and the Professoriate

For as long as there have been academics—whether you date this to ancient Greece or medieval universities or somewhere else in history—an irremediable anxiety has afflicted such individuals. Does the virtuous life consist of contemplation or action? Is it better to understand the world or to change it? Is basic research somehow more noble, pure, or objective than applied research?

Michael C. Desch’s Cult of the Irrelevant does not explicitly announce itself as a book about the good life and the tension between contemplation and action. Rather, Desch, the Packey J. Dee Professor of International Relations at the University of Notre Dame, seeks to explain shifts in the extent to which academics have been willing to produce policy-relevant scholarship, and he pairs this with an argument that academics can and should do so. He situates this within a long-simmering disciplinary debate, which is to say that there is a lot of “inside baseball” here. But Desch’s work, I think, ultimately reaches beyond recent debates about the content and method of International Relations (IR) scholarship and into the more fundamental questions about what a scholarly life ought to look like.

To detail the book in its own terms, this is a study of political science in the United States from the field’s early days as an ill-defined discipline in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the present. The scope at times broadens to encompass academics across disciplinary divides and at other times narrows to focus on scholars of security studies. The main problem Desch identifies, however, is that academics have varied over time in the extent to which they privilege methodological proficiency over policy relevance, and the balance is worsening: “Scholars increasingly equate rigor with the use of particular techniques (mathematics and universal models) and ignore broader criteria of relevance.”

“Relevance,” for Desch, has a narrow definition. He is concerned primarily with promoting work that can directly help U.S. policymakers make decisions relating to the use of force. Desch works from this conception of relevance to advance an argument that focuses on the state’s threat environment—the greater the threat facing a state, the more “relevant” scholarship academics will produce.

In wartime, Desch contends, academics are more willing to discard professional biases against policy engagement, more willing to conduct interdisciplinary work, and more willing to use whatever techniques are necessary to answer the questions policymakers have, even if those techniques cannot offer the firm causal claims that academics would ideally like to produce. Peacetime, on the other hand, allows academics to focus more narrowly on writing for their peers, which yields thicker boundaries between disciplines, a heightened attention to “objectivity” as defined by distance from the policymaking apparatus, and more sophisticated methodological work that, although often pitched as a way to enhance the discipline’s standing with policymakers, is ultimately less mindful of the latter’s needs. In Desch’s telling, these mechanisms yield, for example, the “renaissance” of security studies in the late Cold War as well as efforts to “abolish” the field in the mid-1990s.

Since much of Desch’s previous work circles around similar themes, his arrival at this conclusion is not especially surprising. Beyond the fact that he produced related journal articles before writing Cult of the Irrelevant, its argument is similar to one he made in an earlier book, in which he found in the external threat environment an explanation for variation in the strength of civilian control of the military. Nonetheless, this book offers an important reminder to IR scholars. Our field is by now filled with important work on the wide-ranging and sometimes long-lasting effects of war. But we sometimes overlook war’s influence on our own scholarship.

Certainly, previous literature (which Desch directly engages) has identified the hot and cold wars of the 20th century as formative experiences for IR. Desch, however, brings a wealth of material to this conversation, and he uses this to add more texture to our usual narratives about how war—and, just as importantly, its absence—affects academic work. Scholars can at times talk about disciplinary trends as if they emerge from nowhere or as if they possess a straightforward, linear relationship to advances in technology. In contrast, Desch explains that patterns of war and peace influence disciplinary incentives and thereby help to explain why academics conduct research and relate to policymakers in varying ways.

You might understandably infer from this argument that other academics today are not doing as much policy-relevant work as they should, and that is indeed what Desch claims. (It is worth noting that Desch defines the post-9/11 era as a mixed threat environment; it is, in his telling, not as tranquil as the period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, but nowhere near the intense threat environment of World War II.) Given that Desch is criticizing other academics for producing insufficiently relevant work, he has, of course, received his fair share of rejoinders, and I want to put my own response in the context of some of this previous commentary.

A 2015 symposium in Perspectives on Politics, a journal published by the American Political Science Association, offers perhaps the most direct public engagement between Desch and his critics. This symposium included a much shorter version of Desch’s argument as well as brief responses by several academics. Among the respondents, Ido Oren, Laura Sjoberg, and Erik Voeten all came to one common conclusion: Desch’s definition of “policy relevance” is too narrow. Oren and Sjoberg argue that theoretically informed criticism of U.S. policymakers, whose actions frequently produce insecurity for individuals on the margins of international society, is surely “policy-relevant” even if policymakers don’t want to hear it. Voeten, on the other hand, notes that there are broader audiences worth addressing, especially those who work in international organizations.

While I think there is merit to this criticism, I would raise two additional points here.

First, it is worth digging into some of the data Desch uses to demonstrate variation in policy-relevant work over time. One prominent indicator, for example, is the percentage of peer-reviewed journal articles with a “policy recommendations” section. It is unclear, however, if the decline in this measure means that academics are indeed doing less policy-relevant work or if they are simply offering policy recommendations in different outlets. It seems quite plausible that such sections are increasingly being cut from manuscripts to meet tightening length restrictions and instead being published in places like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, or The Monkey Cage.

Voeten raised a similar point about these outlets in his response, and Desch at the time noted the proliferation of such outlets as an encouraging but indeterminate sign. He says in the book that the numbers are in, and we now know that these outlets are not “an important source of information for policymakers.” If that is the case, however, it may be that academics are producing plenty of “policy-relevant” work without producing influential work.

Second, when Desch seeks out evidence to determine what makes for effective policy-oriented scholarship, the universe of relevant cases is not always clear. For example, Desch discusses flaws in both the Political Instability Task Force (PITF) and the Minerva Project when he reaches the post-9/11 period. (The former is a government-funded initiative to use quantitative models to help anticipate state failure; the latter is a grant-making initiative of the Department of Defense.) He uses these programs to argue that policymakers and academics alike often overestimate the extent to which advanced statistical techniques can inform decisionmaking. But this is not an exhaustive list of recently established programs designed to bring academic tools and insights into the government.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), for example, is based at the University of Maryland and was initially funded by the Department of Homeland Security starting in 2005. It has generally drawn on quantitatively-oriented scholars, and their Global Terrorism Database is frequently cited in academic and journalistic work alike. Have policymakers made extensive use of START’s work? To what extent does this case cut against the examples of the PITF and the Minerva Project? Absent a clearer sense of what programs Desch would include in the scope of his study, the reader is left uncertain.

Third, Desch recommends that academics who want to do relevant work be mindful of the limited impact that even the most prominent academics can have in influencing policy. This is not especially encouraging if the goal is for more academics to do policy-relevant work, but I suspect there are additional dynamics on both sides of this relationship that can dissuade academics from seeking direct engagement with policymakers. From the academic’s perspective, one wonders to what extent there is a receptive policymaking audience for anything beyond research that confirms pre-existing beliefs. For example, when members of the Supreme Court describe quantitative work on gerrymandering as “sociological gobbledygook” or when a presidential candidate maligns the field of philosophy, the barriers between academia and policy start to look more ideological than methodological.

For a policymaker, on the other hand, one has to deal with the realities of coalition-building and pleasing one’s constituency, realities that academics may not fully appreciate when offering policy recommendations. Do such tensions place some inherent distance between academics and policymakers? I suspect that they do, and I am unsure whether this gap can or should be entirely closed.

Ultimately, Desch’s reader returns to the basic question with which I began. Should the academic seek truth with a degree of detachment from worldly concerns? Or should those with valuable skills or expertise offer their services to the state, even if that risks dirtying one’s hands? Such questions are not solely for academics. If you are a Republican national security professional, do you join the Trump administration or distance yourself from it? If you are working at a consulting firm or as a contractor, who are you willing to assist and in pursuit of what policies?

Questions of whether and how to engage in politics are not new, nor is Desch the first to opine on the merits of putting contemplation into action, an ideal to which I am sympathetic. But given that people of good faith have argued about this for centuries, I suspect even Desch’s engaging book will not put an end to the debate.