How to Bridge the Gap Between Policy and Scholarship


In recent years, many public-minded international relations scholars have bemoaned the divide between academic scholarship and policy debates. Too often, academics are asking narrow questions that enable them to utilize disciplinary methods but fail to support efforts to respond to the pressing challenges of our time.

Kudos to Ryan Evans and colleagues for creating “The Schoolhouse” and for using it to focus on the academic-policy world gap especially as it relates to foreign policy and international relations. A number of colleagues — including Frank Gavin, Steve Van Evera, Michael Horowitz, Lena Andrews and others (here and here) — have made important contributions on the what and why of the problem as well as some efforts to narrow the gap.

Along with Steve Weber (UC Berkeley), Naazneen Barma (Naval Postgraduate School), Brent Durbin (Smith College), and Jordan Tama (American University School of International Service), we run the Bridging the Gap (BtG) Program. BtG, which has been going for 10+ years (due to the generous support of Steve Del Rosso and the Carnegie Corporation of New York), has three main objectives: foster policy-relevant scholarship within universities, provide training for other professional skills that help academics connect to the policy world, and promote networking and mentoring among faculty and Ph.D. students who share these interests and goals.

Our two main programs are:

  • New Era Foreign Policy Conference for Ph.D. students and post-docs in international relations and related fields (every March), going into its 12th year, using scenario analyses to generate important research questions;
  • International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI) for faculty (all ranks), held every June, focusing on the “how-to” of connecting with government officials, writing for policy journals, magazines, op-ed pages and leading blogs, and appearing in the media.

We’ve recently launched the Bridging the Gap book series with Oxford University Press for genuinely policy-relevant books by scholars of all ranks. For junior scholars, understandably conscious of tenure requirements, this series provides the opportunity to publish with a prestigious university press while at the same time giving their work some policy focus.

At BtG, we believe that outstanding scholarship and policy-relevant writing are not mutually exclusive. Our programs are designed to help academics recognize their potential as experts with deep knowledge to contribute to broader public and policy debates. We urge our participants to think about how to develop research questions, the answers to which will help policymakers address critical global challenges. We encourage academics to take advantage of opportunities to serve in government, whether as a political appointee, invited academic expert, or through a fellowship, such as those offered by the American Political Science Association, Council on Foreign Relations, or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

One of our central messages to academics is that if you have conducted research that speaks to important policy questions, you should publish your work in an array of venues. As an academic, particularly a tenure-track scholar, you will be most focused on prestigious university presses and top peer-reviewed journals, and that is the main vehicle for gaining visibility in the academy. But if you learn how to write for public and policy audiences, you can take that same research and publish other versions of your work in leading policy journals, magazines, newspapers, and blogs.

We well know that our efforts run counter to the dominant norms and rules (written and unwritten) of political science and related disciplines. We would be at risk of professional malpractice if we didn’t counsel our participants to do their bridging in addition to, not instead of, more traditional academic work. Indeed many have succeeded and are succeeding in their careers: Former New Era participants are now tenured faculty and IPSI alumni are using the training and the networks to engage more in policy.

It’s still an uphill battle, but, dare we say, there are signs of enough initiatives and momentum to call ourselves a policy relevance “movement.” While to date this movement has not been sufficient to transform the disciplines, it is drawing traction from three main sources.

First, university presidents and provosts are under tremendous pressure from donors, parents, students, state legislatures and the federal government to demonstrate that their institutions of higher education have broader relevance to society. They want their faculty to have an impact on the pressing problems of the day, and they are increasingly frustrated by those disciplines in which methods are not a means to an end but the end itself. BtG and other related initiatives thus contribute not only to policy, but also to a core mission universities have as vital institutions in society contributing to public policy debates.

Second, younger scholars are exerting their own efforts to get their work noticed outside of the academy. This is especially evident in outlets such as War on the Rocks, Monkey Cage, Duck of Minerva, Lawfare, and Political Violence at a Glance. In these and other ways the next generation of scholars is jumping at the chance to reach broader audiences.

Third is a matter of personal fulfillment. Some may be fine with scholarship qua scholarship, for writing largely only for and engaging principally with fellow academics. But many of us got into this line of work because we care about the world. Academics often mistakenly believe they are smarter than those in policy positions, or others writing on the issues in think tanks, with NGOs, as journalists and the like, and it’s critical not to go into these conversations from that vantage point. But what we as academics bring to the table is our own lens with which to examine a set of important problems that those other communities are engaged with as well.

It would be a shame (and worse) if there isn’t enough intellectual pluralism for this next generation to build their careers within universities in ways that bridge the academic and policy worlds.


James Goldgeier is Dean of the School of International Service at American University. You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.

Bruce Jentleson is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, and the 2015-16 Henry Kissinger Chair at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress. You can follow him on Twitter @BWJ777.


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