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Past the ivory tower of IR


For years, prominent international relations (IR) scholars have openly criticized the field for privileging "rigor over relevance" and giving little practical advice to those who live and work outside the ivory tower. For example, Professor Stephen Van Evera argues that traditional discipline promotes a "cult of the irrelevant" – "an internal discussion of arcane questions that the world does not ask". On the flip side, scholars like Ido Oren and Adam Elkus reject the idea that political scientists should make themselves politically relevant, arguing that doing so distorts political science by encouraging academics to do justice to the "whims of policymakers in elite government." to become.

Are these concerns justified – are IR scientists too far removed from the political world? Or should we worry that academics are skewing their results for political audiences?

In 2019, the Sie Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and the TRIP project at the Global Research Institute of William & Mary worked on a survey to assess the perception of political engagement by IR scholars to measure in their area. The results of the survey of 971 respondents at US colleges and universities show that IR scientists are more committed than the “cult of the irrelevant” discourse suggests. The results show a significant gap in perception between IR scholars and their employers about the importance of engagement for promotion and tenure. Many scholars say universities should value political activity more than they do.

Although respondents expressed concerns that scientists might misrepresent their beliefs and opinions for the political audience, few indicated they did so themselves. Overall, it appears that despite the lack of professional incentives, IR scientists conduct political activities: Faculty members fail to see that committed political work improves prospects for tenure and promotion. Yet their engagement is deeper and more widespread than would be expected given the prevailing criticism.

If the U.S.'s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals anything, government officials should turn to the knowledge of experts to help make policy decisions. Policies devised without regard to expert knowledge have resulted in massive preventable deaths, a collapse in the international standing of the United States, and an economic crisis. However, a lack of political commitment by the members of the Ivory Tower does not explain that the practitioners have not heeded the advice of experts. The survey data shows that political engagement by IR scientists is the norm rather than the exception – even when universities do not adequately reward it.

A significant proportion of the experts who responded to the survey had prior experience in the political world. Almost half (48 percent) had work experience in the political world, and 38 percent said they had worked in the political world for six months or more. In general, political experience did not appear to be related to academic rank, but a greater proportion of presided professors had more than six months of political experience. In short, if the ivory tower did not deal with real world problems, it would do so despite the wide scientific interest and experience with such problems.

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Some form of ongoing engagement with the political world – writing articles, appearing in the media, writing reports, advising – was the norm for a large number of respondents. Only 7 percent stated that they never became politically active in any way, and there was no evidence of a trend away from the involvement of younger scientists. While older scientists report more frequent engagement, younger scientists were less likely to have not been engaged at all in the past five years than their older colleagues.

These results are consistent with the emergence of George Washington University's Marc Lynch, what has been dubbed the "golden age of academic engagement for the public." This is related in part to the number of online outlets where academics are increasingly sharing their work, and the growth in funding and scholarship opportunities available to academics with political interests. Posting bylined pieces in reputable, but not peer-reviewed outlets, is an inexpensive and rewarding means of political engagement. Readership at outlets like Foreign Policy and the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog include politicians, as well as the same group of scholars who academics seek to build reputations with.

Getting more involved, including advising government agencies or nonprofits, often takes a long time and offers fewer opportunities for recognition: briefings with Senate staff or members of the intelligence community, for example, are rarely conducted. Despite these obstacles, 41 percent of respondents had written policy briefs for government agencies, advocacy organizations, or think tanks, and a larger percentage (49 percent) had provided advice.

This high level of political engagement is in line with the belief of 70 percent of respondents that political engagement improves the quality of their teaching and research – it provides real-world examples for teaching and a network of politicians for interviews, data, and funding opportunities .

Respondents are more divided on whether to put the country before the party. Despite significant opposition to the Trump administration in academic circles, some scholars reported that they were ready to engage with the political community regardless of who occupied the Oval Office – despite the current administration's general hostility towards experts. The next four years could look very different for political engagement, depending on who wins the November elections.

When asked if they considered the identity of the president when deciding to work with the government, 36 percent said they did not consider it, while a slightly larger proportion (41 percent) said so. Partiality and low support for the Trump administration can make these responses atypical: Only 17 percent of self-identified Republicans said they consider the president's identity compared to nearly half of Democrats. Significantly, the reported types of engagements and the frequency of engagements were similar, regardless of whether the respondent stated that their engagement with the government depends in particular on the identity of the president.

More than any other time since World War II, addressing America's myriad and serious problems – the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and the global economic crisis – requires more dedication from experts in general, and IR scientists in particular. Many of our colleagues are ready to counter the criticism of the “cult of the irrelevant”.

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