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The Twelve Rules of Policy-Relevant Scholarship

This is a copy of my guest-post on Dan Drezner’s blog. Back in June, I spent a week in DC participating in the IPSI workshop ran by the Bridging the Gap Project. Here are twelve most important things I learned about how scholars can bridge the gap with policymaking, distilled as rules:

1. There are many ways of influencing policy, both direct and indirect. You can exert direct influence by working for the government or for a think-tank. You can also exert indirect influence by publishing blog posts (either as a guest or regular blogger), opeds, policy articles, and doing media. Create a strategy that includes both types of influence.

2. The dichotomy between scholarship and policy is largely false. Most political science topics have policy implications, so think through a topic in scholarly and policy terms. These often cross-polinize. The key is to choose research topics that allow for double-dipping: topics that have both scholarly import and policy relevance. Then produce scholarly and also policy-oriented products.

3. There are four types of products academics can provide to policymakers. Framework: what’s the appropriate theory or historical analogy to understand recent events? Data: what are the patterns and what should the ground truths be? Forecast: what are the possible scenarios? Advice: what should we do?

4. Be willing to be wrong. Even if it is a probabilistic judgment, accept the risk of taking a position.

5. Don’t be shy, but don’t be a pain. Put your stuff out, send feelers to think-tanks and journals, but make it short. Any pitch — for a piece, an oped, a research project — that takes more than two minutes to read is too long. Be persistent but not insistent (i.e., don’t pitch the same idea twice to the same place).

6. Keep a twin-track curriculum. Think-tanks offer opportunities for non-resident fellows, in which you are asked to join a few events every year, write a report, or join a taskforce. This enables you to have a twin-track curriculum in which you always have an academic and a policy affiliation.

7. There are six qualities policymakers appreciate. Be engaging, constructive, future-oriented, discreet, concise, and have pity on those who have to make decisions. And remember, you’re an expert, not a pundit.

8. Don’t think of a policy piece as a lesser version of a research piece. Policy pieces are not dumbed-down research pieces. They must have specific policy recommendations. Seek to understand what policymakers need before you seek to be understood.

9. Maximize different networks. Don’t just network in academia. Try to build networks in media, think-tanks, and government. Attend events and follow up.

10. Get institutional cover and buy in. Give your bosses a sense of why it is that you want to engage in policy debates, and of how this is a plus for your institution. If there’s a chance that something you wrote or said is controversial and will make a splash, give your boss a heads-up in advance.

11. Look for moments in which your specialty is in high demand. There will come a moment when everyone will want to know about your specialty. You should be prepared for when that opportunity arrives. If possible, take the obituary-writer approach: write drafts of possible blog posts, opeds, or policy pieces addressing a problem you see brewing. Then send them out fast.

12. Pick your battles and mix vanilla with habanero topics. If you only do vanilla topics you’ll get bored, but if you only do habanero topics you’ll get tired and also potentially lose your credibility. Aim for the sweet spot between being an organic intellectual and becoming seen as a wacko.

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categories: academia, advising, public-affairs commentary, writing. | tags: , , .

Posted at 7:15 am


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