Mind the Gap: Spanning the Divide between Academics and Policy

March 23, 2015

When I was preparing for Senate confirmation in 2012, an advisor tasked with ensuring I made it successfully through the process cautioned me about how members of Congress might perceive me. “You’re essentially an academic,” he told me with concern. “Some members of Congress hate academics.” More recently, a fellow panelist at a seminar described me as a “bureaucrat,” that is, one of the normally maligned workers who spend their careers inside the bowels of government. These contrasting views of who I am and what my career represents exemplify the potential identity crisis some in the national security field face. Some seem to believe that we must make a choice between two worlds: academe and government. In reality, many of us live in both worlds, and at times in the gap between them.

It is actually most accurate to say I have a foot in the academic world and am up to my neck in the policy world. My fellow panelist was more right than my confirmation advisor: I have spent most of my twenty-plus year career as a practitioner. Yet that career has been informed substantially by the training I received in a rigorous political science doctoral program and a security-focused public policy master’s program.

I have found four attributes of academic training particularly valuable for my work.

First, academics instilled in me a strong appreciation for and familiarity with history—political, military, and social. The sources of today’s conflicts—from the East China Sea to Ukraine to Syria—have roots that go back decades and even centuries. Moreover, as Mark Twain noted, history often “rhymes.” Understanding past events and trends helps me better assess possible human, organizational, and state decision-making dynamics at play now and possible in the future.

Second, I have relied on social science, and especially international relations, security studies, and American politics, to help me conceptualize and frame U.S. approaches in the geopolitical sphere. As someone whose job titles frequently included the word “strategy,” I am always on the lookout for patterns in the environment, and I use the paradigms of political science to help me interpret those patterns and develop appropriate policy prescriptions. No single theory of international relations wholly guides my thoughts in this regard, though realism in its various forms has proven the most reliable. Inside the “black box” world of the practitioner, theory is enlightening, but it is seldom dispositive.

The third attribute that academe instilled in me is analytic rigor. PowerPoint-deep work may get you pretty far in Washington, but it won’t get you through ten minutes in a seminar with this nation’s top-flight academics. The ability to persuade is important in every policy-making job. Those with advanced degrees tend to stand out for their ability to ask “why” and to develop answers using evidence and analysis, even if they sometimes fall short in their personal powers of persuasion (as George Kennan discovered). A corollary to this training is the development of a thicker skin to criticism and the seeking out of scrutiny to strengthen arguments and products.

The final attribute that good academic training can provide is subject-matter breadth. On its surface this is ironic, given that the dissertation process often leads one into a relatively narrow sphere of inquiry. In my experience, however, academics forced me to understand and encounter subjects and methods that I would have otherwise been happy to avoid. The pay-off for this “eat your vegetables” curriculum has been enormous. As examples, I could not be effective in the field of security studies without a working knowledge of the key debates in trade and development policy (international political economics), and I routinely employ Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” (political philosophy) to help me evaluate all manner of public policy issues.

Given my own belief in the value of advanced academic training, it is unsurprising that from my vantage point, the academic and policy worlds are too disconnected today. This disconnect makes shared learning difficult, thus degrading the potential quality of national security decision-making, hopefully a common goal in both communities. And many of the questions facing policy-makers today lend themselves to insight from academe, for instance: What is the nature of the international system and is it changing? What norms guide different actors within it? How do domestic factors affect foreign policy and international security? What factors drive state fragility? How might deterrence theory apply to the cyber domain?

Both sides can help close this divide, but I believe academia bears the larger of the two burdens insofar as so many within it exhibit the greater bias against doing so. Consider just one measure for such bias: would a current “professor of practice” at a typical political science or economics department have been admitted as a student to that same institution in his or her formative years (holding standards constant)? I fear for many universities the answer would be no. Are we comfortable with an approach in which the very institutions that crave the experience and name recognition of former senior government officials would today reject their younger selves as applicants? To me, this bears an unfortunate resemblance to a bygone era in which elites depended on learned tutors and governesses to educate their children but would never have considered them of the same social status.

The solution for academia is clear and it is attainable: admit a greater proportion, at least a sizable minority, of doctoral students who come from or would like to pursue careers in the policy sphere. There are several benefits to this approach. Most obviously, it stands the best chance of increasing the number of decision-makers in government who have a grounding in theory and methods. In addition, it would build out an integrated network of scholars and policy-makers, born in the graduate seminar room and potentially bearing fruit over the ensuing thirty-plus years of professional interaction. The policy world, in turn, should continue to find avenues for bringing academics into government. The authorities provided by the Intergovernmental Personnel Act are designed for just such exposure, as are mechanisms such as the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship. With greater interaction and routine engagement would come a shift in culture, surely slowly and potentially modest, but with the promise of prompting over time a reflex in each community to engage the other.

Although greater mobility between universities and the policy world is the most important advance the two communities could make, it is not the only one. It is imperative, despite the difficulty imposed by real-world events and the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, that those in positions of power within the national security establishment get beyond their inboxes. A contemporary of mine, now in government but a once and future academic, recently lamented in a meeting that “no one on the outside” is thinking or writing about issues of so-called hybrid or gray-area warfare. This comment surprised me, as a great deal of thinking and writing is emerging on this topic, including some in this publication. This exchange reinforced for me how challenging it is to stay current on outside writing and research for those in the crush of daily foreign policy crisis-management, even those inclined toward interacting with the academic and think tank communities. If the tables had been turned and I had been the government official and he the outsider, chances are strong I would have struck a similar chord of disconnect and dismay to him.

The U.S. government is not today an astute sensing organization, particularly on issues that extend beyond a two-year time horizon. There are some parts of the national security establishment that do this better than others, for example the National Intelligence Council, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the strategy and planning offices in the State and Defense Departments. However, these organizations are generally too removed from decision-makers to be significant influencers. Congress and the Executive Branch should be examining its strategy and planning muscles before the next presidential administration takes office to determine if they should commission new studies, add staff, or create new venues for long-term thinkers to provide advice to senior leaders in both branches. Those looking toward the prospect of holding positions of power in the future should likewise be thinking now about how they would incorporate good sensing techniques and “outside the bubble” engagements into their operations.

Although government must improve its track-record at listening to those on the outside, academics wishing to influence policy-making will also need to take on practical advice. Foremost is to ensure you have something to say that the national security community believes is worthy of its attention. This is not to argue for following the latest trends and fads. In fact, one of the most valuable contributions that academics make is in highlighting the challenges and opportunities that do not seem to be on decision-makers’ radars, or developing creative solutions to ones that are. Rather, I am encouraging the academic community to think of ways to make its research and findings policy-actionable. This includes spelling out links between its work and the world as the policy-maker will recognize it, such as by using concrete examples of applying a particular theory and using case studies or scenarios that illustrate contemporary concerns. Equally important is using language that is decipherable to the average college sophomore, and I don’t mean one who is a philosophy or theoretical physics major. It also includes being creative about the different ways to package materials for different audiences, whether by tailoring it for a variety of publications, incorporating multi-media and social media approaches, or attracting government officials to speaking venues.

This last point leads to a second piece of advice for academics seeking to influence policy: the greatest currency in Washington is not the written word but personal engagement. In my experience, most senior policy-makers prefer to absorb material in a discussion rather than by reading an article, cable, policy briefing, book, or opinion piece like this one. A particularly noteworthy piece can of course be the entry ticket to personal interaction, but seeking to influence solely through the written word is a poor bet unless one’s personal reputation is already solidly established in government (such as if you are Joe Nye). As previously argued, getting policy-makers to take time to meet with those outside government is extremely challenging, but there are wise officials who will do so. Personal engagement almost always requires researchers to come to the decision-maker, which often means traveling to Washington. Scholars who want to affect policy outcomes must take time to identify, pursue, and meet with the right set of government actors who can use their work to improve national and international security.

Today, I run a defense and security program in the think tank world, existing somewhere in the space between academe and government. Like many of my colleagues, I strive to find the right balance between rigor and relevance that best allows those of us in the gap to play a positive role. Much as a working parent can feel inadequate attempting to do everything, trying to be a little bit academic and a little bit policy can be challenging. Inherent in the proposition is a belief that the two worlds can reinforce one another. Divides between the communities are bound to continue and are even healthy, but there is promise in building bridges between them with the goal of devising better solutions for foreign and security policy. And that is to the benefit of us all.


Kathleen H. Hicks is Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously served as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces. She holds a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MPA from the University of Maryland.