war on the rocks

A New Generation of Scholars Looks to Bridge the Gap

February 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a policy roundtable on the divide between academics, policymakers, and the public from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

In 1993, Stanford Professor Alexander George published Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy. The project that I co-direct, which goes by the same name, as well as other related programs at a number of universities funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, are testimony to the influence George had on so many of us who are interested in connecting academic research to policy and public audiences. Hundreds of scholars have attended our Bridging the Gap New Era Workshop (NEW) for PhD students, now in its 13th year, and our International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI) for faculty, which we will hold for the 8th time in June. NEW focuses on helping emerging scholars develop policy-relevant questions and learn about a range of career options for PhD students who want to do policy-relevant work. IPSI is designed to give faculty members more tools to engage policy and public audiences.

We have learned through our work that university leaders across the country would like to see more of their faculty engage local, national, and international audiences beyond the ivory tower. In 2016, we convened 13 provosts from a variety of public and private universities to discuss ways to create incentives and resources on their campuses for this type of work.

In moments of great uncertainty, policymakers and the public turn to academics for ideas and solutions. After World War II, for example, the onset of the nuclear age created huge opportunities for figures such as Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, William Kaufmann, and others who held positions at universities but also had think tank and government connections. Nuclear war made great power war unwinnable, and these theorists made major contributions to the understanding of the requirements for mutual deterrence, such as the concept of “Mutual Assured Destruction” or MAD.  As former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg says, “policymaking is about putting ideas into practice, and universities are about generating ideas.”

Many of the significant foreign policy theories and ideas that have circulated in the policy world and in public debate have come from academia: the end of history, the clash of civilizations, and, more recently, the so-called Thucydides trap. Liberalism’s theory that democracies don’t go to war with one another has influenced U.S. presidents since Woodrow Wilson. Bill Clinton’s 1994 National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement argued, for example: “The more that democracy and political and economic liberalization take hold in the world, particularly in countries of geostrategic importance to us, the safer our nation is likely to be and the more our people are likely to prosper.”

One reason academic ideas penetrate government is that the United States has a long history of academics serving at high levels of government, including National Security Advisers McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Condoleezza Rice, as well as other government officials, such as Joseph Nye, Stephen Krasner, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. And even foreign policy practitioners who have not come from academia often have backgrounds in political science or international relations either at the undergraduate or graduate level, where they took classes that exposed them to academic ideas.

Why Should Academics Seek to Bridge the Gap?

Many scholars go into academia because they have a passion for research and writing. They typically are not trained or even encouraged in their PhD programs to write for policy or public audiences. Yet, what we’ve learned from the applications to our Bridging the Gap training workshops is that there is a real hunger in the academy, particularly among younger scholars, to use academic expertise to influence policy audiences and public debates.

One reason to do this type of work is to reach a larger readership. Academic books and articles take a long time to write and are intended for a limited distribution. It can be rewarding when shorter pieces spun off from that work reach a wider audience. After all, academics are in the business of educating others, and many would like to find ways to do so beyond their students and colleagues. American University professor Sarah Snyder describes in this roundtable how she used her expertise in the history of American foreign policy, particularly in the area of human rights, to produce pieces for the Conversation, which has a huge readership through its own platform as well as through republishing. Through this medium, she was able to reach tens of thousands of readers and share her knowledge and insights.

Particularly when seeking to educate the broader public based on their scholarly expertise, scholars should keep in mind that their value comes from that deep expertise. Snyder acknowledges that at first she worried about going on radio and television because she is not a pundit. But media outlets look for scholars precisely for this reason — because they are experts, not general commentators. And as Snyder found out, in addition to reaching the broader public, other scholars heard her commentary and invited her to present her work on their campuses.

Where Are the Opportunities?

University of Texas LBJ School professor Joshua Busby describes below writing for platforms like the Duck of Minerva and the Monkey Cage, the latter of which started as a blog in the George Washington University political science department and is now hosted by the Washington Post. Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy professor Monica Duffy Toft mentions outlets like War on the Rocks (which has become highly influential in the defense community) and Lawfare, which is widely read by folks in the national security and legal community. Her Fletcher colleague Dan Drezner has built an amazing public profile throughout his career, and now has a regular column for the Washington Post.

Another kind of writing that branches out beyond academia takes the form of producing papers for think tanks, as Busby discusses. Think tanks are not only excellent outlets for policy relevant work but are great ways to build policy networks. While most U.S.-based think tanks are located in Washington, D.C., there are important opportunities in other major American cities, such as the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, although academics do not have to be located in these cities to connect to the think tanks.

As Busby and Toft discuss in their contributions to this roundtable, there are also a variety of ways that academics can gain policy experience, including fellowships such as the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (IAF), the American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship, or working in government as a political or expert appointee. (International organizations also provide opportunities for the latter.) But as both of those contributors note, academics need to be able to tell policymakers what to do based on their substantive and theoretical knowledge, which can be hard for a scholar who has been trained to build and test theory. Toft writes that policymakers “need good — not perfect — answers fast, and they require clear predictions along with sound options for dealing with those crises.”

One personal anecdote illustrates this point perfectly: In my first week as an IAF at the Department of State in 1995, I delivered a requested policy memo to my boss, who said, “This is a great analysis, but what should we do?” And I thought to myself, “How the heck should I know? I’m an academic.” A year spent at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff taught me how. It also greatly informed my subsequent scholarship and teaching.

What Are the Costs to Academics?

Although some professional organizations, like the American Anthropological Association and the American Sociological Association, encourage departments in their fields to consider how to count publicly engaged work as part of the tenure and promotion process, we are still in the early stages of agreeing on how to measure that impact. And as Toft notes, even if one is in a department or school that values this type of work, the external review process is likely to produce letters that focus exclusively on the evaluation of peer-reviewed academic work. The provosts who attended the 2016 Bridging the Gap workshop cited this as a major obstacle in providing incentives for more policy relevance and public engagement. This is also a challenge, as Toft argues, for interdisciplinary work, which might be essential for solving pressing problems but runs into problems in disciplinary departments that can sometimes suffer from a silo effect.

Snyder reminds us, as we consider how to promote greater scholarly public engagement, not to ignore the huge disparities in the numbers of men and women writing op-eds for major media outlets. She cites a Washington Post op-ed editor who revealed that 90 percent of submissions came from men, an astonishing statistic. Another important issue that needs to be addressed, as Snyder points out, is that women whose work is visible on social media are subject to significant online harassment.


There are many opportunities for scholars to bridge the gap. Younger scholars, in particular, have shown eagerness to do so as one can see by perusing the Monkey Cage, War on the Rocks, the Duck of Minerva, the Conversation, and other great outlets that engage policy and public audiences. There are still academic departments that advise junior scholars to wait until after they are tenured to do this type of work. However, scholars who spend graduate school and the tenure-track writing narrow academic pieces will find it hard, after a dozen or more years, to suddenly write for such a different audience. No one who advocates for bridging the gap is suggesting that scholars abandon serious academic work to write op-eds or think tank reports. The goal is to do both well and use academic work to build a broader portfolio.

International Affairs schools are playing a major role in hiring faculty who do both academic and policy work, and particularly in valuing certain expertise that disciplinary departments have traditionally ignored. Political science turned its back on area studies some time ago, but International Affairs schools need experts on specific countries and regions for teaching purposes. These faculty members can also be critical for helping policymakers as well as the public understand places like China, Egypt, and North Korea, especially when conflict arises. History departments have devalued international diplomatic history, but in recent years, policy schools such as Harvard’s JFK School, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the Fletcher School, and American University’s School of International Service have lured leading diplomatic historians to train future policymakers. The challenges of measuring impact on the public and in the policy arena for both the tenure and promotion processes won’t go away. But encouraging faculty to bridge those gaps is a welcome feature of the international affairs school landscape, as indicated by the three great scholars who have contributed to this roundtable.


James Goldgeier is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service at American University, where he served as Dean from 2011-17. Previously, he was a professor at George Washington University, where, from 2001-05, he directed the Elliott School’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. He also taught at Cornell University, and has held a number of public policy appointments, including Director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council Staff, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress. In addition, he has held appointments at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Hoover Institution, the Brookings Institution, and the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is past president of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, and he co-directs the Bridging the Gap project, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He has authored or co-authored four books.

Image: UT Moody College of Communication/Flickr