A Debate: Political Science is Lapsing into Irrelevance, with Michael Desch & Henry Farrell
May 31, 2019
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Good afternoon, and welcome both to our in-person audience and our virtual audience that is watching via live stream. I'm very pleased to see a number of eminent political scientists in the room, and I look forward to a spirited Q&A session when we get to that.
I'm Steve Del Rosso. I direct the International Peace and Security Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the grant-making foundation established by the eminent philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who died 100 years ago this August.
The Carnegie Corporation should not be confused with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, which was founded in 1914—we were founded in 1911—as the Church Peace Union originally, with whom we share a grandfather, Andrew Carnegie. We have no other formal institutional connection, but we are very grateful to our cousins for allowing us to use your facilities today.
So, thank you, Joel Rosenthal, the president, Melissa Semeniuk, the chief of staff, and I'd also like to thank my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation for their assistance today.
Andrew Carnegie believed in the power of ideas, and the most powerful idea that he had was the abolishment of war. We're still working on that one. However, his initial mandate, that the Corporation should be devoted to the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding, remains operable.
Carnegie Corporation has long supported academic research because we believe that good policy is informed by good ideas, and good ideas are not formed in a vacuum and that we turn to the academy as a prime source for those ideas. We also understand, of course, that the path from idea to policy is a nonlinear one and often lengthy.
The late great Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffmann once described American foundations as "the dumbwaiters between the academic salons and the kitchens of power." The term "dumbwaiter" may be open to some misinterpretation—who wants to be called a "dumbwaiter"?—but it does capture the notion of a mechanism that moves objects from one area to another.
Over the past decade the Corporation has supported a subprogram within the International Peace and Security Program on bridging the gap between the academic and policy worlds, and we have attempted to help move academic insights into the policy realm. With a few notable exceptions we have not focused on the policy demand side of the equation. Many grant-making foundations, including mine, would argue that they're already bridging the gap, they're already engaging in the policy world, but in the International Peace and Security Program we decided that it was warranted to focus more directly on a particular discipline in the academy that was quite relevant and resonant with the issues of programmatic interest and issues that we were concerned with, and that is political science and the subfield of international relations (IR).
We have a variety of efforts in this area to increase opportunities for scholars to translate their academic work into accessible, intelligible form, and to disseminate those ideas to a wider audience. We also are building and encouraging a cohort of scholars, particularly early-career academics, who are interested in real-world problems. At the same time, a number of grantees are trying to chip away at the structural disincentives within the academy working against policy relevance in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. You can find more on these efforts and others at our website, www.carnegie.org.
Both of our debaters today represent the academic supply side of the gap, but both also hold contrasting views on the nature of the bridging challenge, which were recently highlighted in a pair of dueling articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education that some of you may have read. It is this point of contention that's reflected in the proposition of this debate that you'll be voting on.
You will vote once at the beginning, and then after the debate you'll vote again, and we'll determine to what extent, if any, your views have changed.
Let me introduce our debaters, both of whom I am very pleased to say represent projects and institutions that have been supported by Carnegie Corporation. So, in many ways this is a debate within the family, and we all know how those can sometimes go, and it's not even Thanksgiving.
First up is Michael C. Desch. Mike is the Packey J. Dee Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame; director of the Notre Dame International Security Center; a specialist in international relations, foreign policy, nuclear issues; founding director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs; and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Mike has also dipped his toe—maybe even his ankle—in the policy world, working in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department. He has been on the staff of a U.S. senator and has worked in the National Security and Foreign Affairs Division of the Congressional Research Service.
He's the author of several books and numerous journal articles and op-ed pieces. He has been one of the stalwarts of our "Bridging the Gap" efforts most recently, and the inspiration for this debate today is his new book. It's a culmination of multiyear research projects entitled Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security, and it describes and traces the relationship between the Beltway and the ivory tower from World War I to the present day, and the waxing and waning of the influence of scholars, particularly in the national security realm, and I might add for better or worse, but you have to read the book to get the details on that.
By the way, Mike, of course, is representing the "Yes" on the motion that we have up on the board.
Representing the other side, the "No" on the motion, will be Henry Farrell.
Henry Farrell is a professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliott School at The George Washington University. His research interests are on the role of democracy in a complex world, the liberal international order, trust and cooperation in international affairs, e-commerce, institutional theory, and the European Union. He previously taught at the University of Toronto.
In addition to being a scholar, he is a social media maven and a prolific writer and contributor to some of the leading academic journals. He's also a member of the Crooked Timber group blog and has been quoted extensively in the mass media.
You may know him best as one of the editors of The Washington Post-affiliated The Monkey Cage. He is also a blogger there. He is in addition on the advisory board of the Social Science Research Council Digital Culture Initiative, an affiliated scholar at Stanford University Law School's Center for Internet and Society, and an associate editor of Perspectives on Politics.
He is also the author of a new book just out with Abraham Newman, Of Privacy and Power: The Transatlantic Struggle over Freedom and Security, which surveys recent work on the "new interdependence" in that realm.
Again, the motion to be debated today is: "Resolved: Is political science lapsing into irrelevance?"
In conclusion, let me say the term "cult of the irrelevant," which is the title of Mike's book, can be traced back to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political scientist Steve Van Evera, who defined it as "an internal discussion of arcane questions that the world is not asking."
In essence, the "Yes" position, represented by Mike in this debate, supports the view that political science is providing increasingly precise and sophisticated answers to increasingly irrelevant questions.
Henry Farrell supports the opposing "No" position on the debate motion and will argue that political science is not drifting into irrelevance, that it is more policy-relevant and much better in communicating with policymakers than some—like Mike Desch and others—believe.
So, let's have at it. Ten-minute opening remarks from each, followed by some Q&As from me to the debaters, then we'll open up to the audience, and end with five-minute closing arguments from each of our debaters and a second tally of the votes that you'll make right after they end their final statements.
Mike, you're up. Ten minutes. I'll be watching the clock. I'm sure you'll be as well. Thanks a lot.
MICHAEL DESCH: It doesn't start until I put my paper down on the podium here.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: That's it.
MICHAEL DESCH: Thanks, Steve, and thanks to Carnegie for hosting us.
I'm here to speak on the affirmative. When I talk about relevance, I just want to be clear how I define it. When I talk about "relevant scholarship," I'm talking about scholarship that answers questions or solves problems which large numbers of people outside of our guild—meaning academic political science—regard as substantively important and that's useful especially but not exclusively to policymakers.
Why do I defend this seemingly extreme position despite Henry, the disciplinary Twittersphere, the Minerva Initiative, "The Interpreter" column in The New York Times, and even The Monkey Cage, which by the way I'm a contributor to. I can't remember if it was before you guys jumped over to The Washington Post or not.
The background for this is there has long been a paradox among academic political science. We've had an in-principle commitment that the work that we do should be relevant to the price of tea in China, and we think we're relevant, but when you actually look at it or when you talk to policymakers we're not as relevant as we think we are.
I'm not defending the position that we're completely irrelevant, and I'm also not defending the position that the most advanced techniques in our discipline are by definition irrelevant, but what I want to suggest is that we've become less relevant over time.
I make this argument based on three things: first of all, the history of the discipline; second, based on data that I have based on both what we do in terms of policy-relevant scholarship and also what policymakers say about it; and then finally, I want to talk a little bit about the theory that's behind my argument.
Political science is in a way a tragic discipline, and I don't mean tragic like what it's like at a normal faculty meeting, I mean tragic in the Greek sense, which is that the idea that disciplinary professionalization could go hand-in-hand with greater relevance basically goes back to the dawn of modern political science. None other than Charles Merriam at the University of Chicago, father of the new science of politics, and also somebody deeply committed to the Progressive Era agenda, is a good example of that. Rigor and relevance for Merriam, for Harold Lasswell, and maybe for Henry and a lot of my contemporary political science colleagues, go together like tea and crumpets.
The problem with this optimism strikes me as twofold. First of all, well, there are some times in which rigor and relevance—and "rigor" I'm going to define in a particular way; I'm not saying it's the only way to define it—are mutually reinforcing. They are also often in tension. As I talk about in the book that Steve was kind enough to shill for me, the preferred tools of modern political science are not useful to all the important questions that policymakers care about, and in fact when the tension becomes manifest I argue that we often make the decision that rigor, narrowly defined, trumps relevance.
What's the evidence for that? Any of you who are in a political science department with a graduate Ph.D. program will undoubtedly hear echoes in your department of what my department has done in recent years. We went 10 years ago from one required methods course to five required methods courses today. Think about the impact that has on the graduate curriculum, particularly in terms of the tradeoffs between other sorts of courses one might take, and also think about the signal that that sends to aspiring young political scientists.
Indeed, policy relevance is often outsourced as sort of an afterthought. So you have the good work of Jim Goldgeier at American University (AU), also supported by Steve and Carnegie in the Bridging the Gap program, that is doing the Lord's work in my view, literally, but it's work that is being done by AU, not by these departments that are actually training the graduate students.
Graduate students are the canaries in the coalmine. In the interests of time I'm going to hold the elucidation of what I see those canaries telling me for the Q&A.
But the book that Steve was kind enough to mention is actually a study of two trajectories, like two ships in the night, the disciplinary development of political science on the one hand and the development of the subfield of international security on the other hand. In the subtitle we talk about the "waxing and waning" of the place of security studies in political science, and that's really the key to the story that I'm telling here.
There has been a lot of optimism recently—and I think Henry will well articulate this position—that maybe this was the case in the past. Maybe in the late 1960s or early 1970s, maybe even into the 1980s, the disengagement of political science from the policy world was more evident than maybe it is today.
But let me talk about one key example that a lot of people would point to as an illustration of the optimistic position, and this is the Minerva Initiative, the initiative that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates announced in April of 2008 to mobilize the academy for the Global War On Terrorism.
I think if you actually look carefully—and I have done that in the book—what you see even in the Minerva Initiative is that for every step forward in terms of reengaging the discipline and policy-relevant work, you see at least a step if not a step and a half backward, and again I'll go into more discussion of how the initial arrangement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a big part of Minerva did not produce what Gates and his colleagues were looking for, and in fact NSF has been replaced by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which I think speaks volumes in terms of what's going on.
Let me talk just very quickly. You've got the next slide up. I'm an empirical social scientist. I like numbers, Henry. So what does the data tell us about what we as political scientists are doing?
In fact, one of Henry's late colleagues, Lee Sigelman, conducted a very important exercise in the centennial edition of the American Political Science Review, the flagship journal of our discipline, tracking the percentage of articles that offered policy recommendations.
I've grafted onto that—it's on the left-hand side of the screen—both the declining willingness of our colleagues to offer policy recommendations with a rise in the dominance of how political scientists do business with large and formal analysis.
On the right hand is a related but somewhat different study doing the same thing for major IR journals.
I'm close to having run out of time, and I've only cleared my throat, but our moderator immoderately has made some insinuations about my prolixity, and so I'm looking at the last three seconds of my time, and so I'll just end with the set-up for the theoretical argument that I would make, and it's a quote from former Harvard president Derek Bok, who presumably knows of what he is speaking. He said, and I quote: "We cannot assume that academic scientists will divide their efforts appropriately between basic and applied research."
That sentiment I think captures quite precisely my view of why I'm taking the affirmative position. Thank you.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you, Mike. Ten minutes and 31 seconds. That's not bad.
MICHAEL DESCH: But who's counting?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Henry.
HENRY FARRELL: Okay. Obviously—or this debate would not be taking place—I disagree with Mike. I think that political science is not lapsing, to use Mike's terms, into a "cult of the irrelevant." In fact, I think that political science has over the last number of years arguably become more relevant to policymakers, which is, I think, the measure that Mike is most interested in using, than it has been for a long, long time.
This is in part thanks to initiatives such as Carnegie's Bridging the Gap. It's also thanks to the work of a wide variety of different political scientists using different methodologies, coming from different perspectives, and getting engaged in the policy process in ways that they haven't done hitherto.
As Stephen mentioned, this began in a pair of dueling op-eds, one of them written by Mike, the other written by Jack Knight and I in The Chronicle of Higher Education, where we took issue with some of the things that Mike said. Our piece was admittedly somewhat snarky. I take full responsibility for all that snark, Jack had nothing to do with it. But I will say in extenuation and mitigation that the snark was guided by a real degree of frustration on my part because this is a debate that has been happening for 20 years in more or less identical phrases, identical arguments, and very often the same quotes being used again and again.
I remember when I was back in grad school Joe Lepgold making very, very similar arguments to Mike, and as you can see that's a little bit further back in the past than I would like it to be.
So this is something that has been happening. The argument has been made for a long, long time, and the argument more or less is as Mike presented it, which is that we see political science having become lured by the sirens of quantitative methodology and formal modeling, to be less prosy about it by statistics and by game theory, and lured away from policy relevance and relevance to the outside world into this arcane and incomprehensible set of internal debates, and this is why political science is irrelevant to policymakers today.
I think that this merges together two very different questions which I wanted to pull out and disentangle from each other. One is an internal disciplinary question, and an internal disciplinary set of fights between qualitative and quantitative methodologies, the kind of fight that really gets political scientists excited. Like everybody else we are obsessed with our internal gossip—who got which job, which department is going which way, who is the dominant force in the discipline. As I say, it's of enormous interest to political scientists. I'm not sure that it has nearly as much relevance to the outside world as the debate that we have been seeing over the last 20 years would suggest.
The second I think is the much more important debate that we ought to be thinking about, which is if you take political scientists, whether they be quantitative, qualitative, interpretive, sign language and dance, whatever methodologies they use, how can you make this into something that is going to be useful and relevant to broader debate including debate with policymakers?
I think the second is the more important question. The first, as somebody who has worked at the coalface of this for a period of more than a decade, is something which is not nearly as important as people think that it is.
What I would say here is that—and maybe this helps to perhaps correct and apologize for some of the snark of the piece, because I want to agree very, very strongly with something that Mike said in a piece that he wrote with Paul Avey back in 2014 for the International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), which is where I think he began to set out some of these arguments in public. He has a lot of quantitative material, much of it making the case that he has just made, but also at the end of that he has some extremely sound advice for how it is that political scientists ought to communicate better with policymakers, and this advice more or less amounts to two things.
First of all, use newspapers. Policymakers like newspapers. They find newspapers useful. They find the news media to be a useful source of information based on Mike's research as they find work done in the classified space in the intelligence community.
Second, be short and punchy and direct in what you're saying. Don't be beating around the bush. Don't be hemming and hawing. Instead, present what results you have in ways that are clear and communicable to people who don't have a direct social science training.
These are excellent pieces of advice. This is an excellent way to think about things.
What I find a little puzzling I guess is that this is the kind of advice which we and other people have been engaging with over the last several years, and so I guess I would like to see—I was a little puzzled that there wasn't more discussion of this in Mike's book—some acknowledgment or some direct confrontation of all of the ways in which political scientists have been adhering more or less to the kinds of dictums that Mike suggests. The good news is that I believe that this is working.
As Stephen mentioned at the beginning, I'm one of the editors at The Monkey Cage, which is a blog at The Washington Post, and we have more or less implemented pretty well exactly the kinds of things that Mike suggests. First of all, we're a newspaper or we're part of a newspaper. We have—which is a pretty wonderful deal—more or less carte blanche to publish good political science work for a broader audience under the auspices of The Washington Post, which is, of course, one of the major newspapers of record, and policymakers read us.
Policymakers are influenced by us. Policymakers absorb what we have to say not because we're political scientists—also I should say not because we are The Monkey Cage as such—but because we are publishing under The Washington Post rubric and that indeed provides us with a cachet, with an ability to reach out to a policy audience that we would not otherwise have.
Second, we make damn sure that the people who write for us do so in the kind of format that Mike suggests. In other words, we ruthlessly expunge any political science jargon, and I have to say the qualitative political scientists—and this is a subject of personal pain for me—are quite as bad at using incomprehensible jargon as quantitative social scientists are. We purge this. We force them to write in clear, plain, actionable language. We cut them down so that they can write in a maximum of a thousand words. We try to get it down to 700 or 800, and this actually does appear to work.
If you look at this graph, this is a graph showing the number of political scientists who we have published over the last years—this is up to the end of 2018. We're now up to I think somewhere north of 3,500 political scientists who have published material in The Monkey Cage over the last several years. When you consider that the American Political Science Association as a whole has approximately 11,000 members, that is a very, very substantial percentage of the discipline who we have had the luck to publish.
The other piece of good news—and if you could move on to the second slide here—is that this has consequences. We've done two rounds of surveys of our contributors, and these surveys have come up with some extremely encouraging reasons to believe that in fact this stuff does work.
If you look at our contributors, over 40 percent of them say that when they publish a piece in The Monkey Cage they have had unsolicited contact from people in the relevant policy community afterward. People in those policy communities have wanted to engage with them, have wanted to talk to them.
Nearly 50 percent of people have had further media contact, and people who have written for us also report in large numbers that they believe that this is going to provide them with greater opportunities for talking, for writing, for communicating in non-academic audiences, with the public, and with policymakers afterward, and that this is also going to provide them with increased exposure to media. This also is something that we like very much, and I should say when I present The Monkey Cage, this is not just blowing our own horn. There are many other people who are doing similar things to us. We are one of the most prominent.
But one of the things that we do like is that a lot of the people who write for us then go on to write in other forums and in other contexts. They get bitten by the bug, and they get thoroughly engaged in public debate in a way that they haven't done in the past.
So this is I think extremely encouraging quantitative evidence that suggests that this actually works and that in a certain sense I think 2014, Mike, is perhaps more accurate, at least to this specific set of recommendations, than 2019, and I think we're really seeing some important changes happening. There are plenty of anecdotes which I could give on this that I don't have time for.
In other words, I think the reasons why I disagree with Mike are twofold: First of all, because if you look at the evidence, quantitative research, at least as far as we can see, is entirely of as much interest to the broader public as qualitative research is. We see no differences. Once you have put it into an intelligible format it works just as well.
Second, we have seen a renaissance over the last number of years in the ability of political scientists to communicate with a broader public and with policymakers and to do work which is policy-relevant.
I'd like to close by saying that the reason why I think this is important is because I think that this old debate that we've been having for the last couple of decades is the wrong debate. The way in which policy is made is changing dramatically. Ideas are bubbling up from nontraditional places. The Green New Deal I think is a perfect example of that. We need to be thinking about how to engage with these non-traditional forms of policymaking.
We also need to engage with a world in which policy expertise within the administration as well as outside simply isn't treated in the same way and is in some ways in a state of intellectual crisis. I think these are debates we need to be having. This is what we need to be focusing on rather than concentrating on what is primarily an internal disciplinary fight and externalizing it to a broader set of issues where different logics are operating.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you, Henry.
Lots of fodder for discussion between our two debaters. Before I would deign to pepper you with questions, I'm going to allow Mike to respond to Henry and vice versa.
But before I do that, there's a great quote in your book concerning the proclivity of scholars to use certain jargon from George Bernard Shaw that said, "All professions are conspiracies against the laity," which I found quite amusing.
MICHAEL DESCH: Did you find some jargon in my book?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Oh, none, once I got the translation from the appendix that allowed me to understand what you were saying. No. Very clear.
Each of you have said things that I'm sure despite—I was intrigued by Henry saying, it was a very effective debate tactic when you say actually I agree with what your fellow debater said, but there were some issues of contention.
Mike, would you like to respond to what Henry said, and then obviously, Henry, you'll have an opportunity.
MICHAEL DESCH: Henry very kindly cited the International Studies Quarterly piece, "What Do Policymakers Want?" He's absolutely right that The Monkey Cage model should have been the secret sauce for advancing policy relevance. I have to say that's what I thought at the time.
I still think the venue matters, and brevity and clarity are absolutely critical, and my hat's off to you and your colleagues for trying to do that through The Monkey Cage.
I would just say, though, you had two sets of data. You had data about what The Monkey Cage publishes, and you have self-reporting from scholars about what they think the impact of it is. Let me suggest that what we need more broadly—and I suggest it in all modesty—is a broader survey of policymakers about what they're looking for.
The criticism of our original ISQ piece was that we didn't have data about blogs in 2011, published in 2013. There were other criticisms as well, but that was a big one.
So when we re-ran a version of this survey with the Teaching, Research & International Policy (TRIP) people at William & Mary in 2017—we haven't published the results yet, but I have them—we asked explicitly about blogs and online sources, how you use them.
Second, we also, and this is—I've got to be clear—broken down by security policymakers, trade, and development policymakers, but we named names, a lot of different blogs or online sources of news and information.
The takeaway from that is that the academic blogs are nowhere near as influential as, let's say, foreign policy blogs, which is more of a professional sort of thing. In fact, in security studies the blog that has been most successful in bridging the gap is War on the Rocks, an online venue that certainly has academics contributing to it but also has a large number of former policymakers as well.
My interpretation of that is in fact I was wrong—not wrong, but my optimism in the earlier piece that the marquee affiliation with The Washington Post and the format and the approach would have more impact than it has. It doesn't seem to be the case in IR that it has had that so far.
What I would say is I'd really love to see a replication of what we tried to do more broadly in other issue areas. You do see in our most recent data a difference between security and trade and development on a lot of these issues, and I have no doubt that if you were to look at areas of policy closely linked with American politics or other parts of the field that they might feel somewhat differently about it, but we don't have that data yet, and I think that's the missing link.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Before Henry responds I just want to add a little plug that we also support War on the Rocks and the TRIP study at William & Mary.
MICHAEL DESCH: God, you've got your fingers in everything.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: It seems to me one of the points of contention is how you each define "policymakers." Maybe when you respond to Mike's critique you might expand on that. Mike is talking about governmental national security policymakers, and as I understand it, Henry, your aperture is wider in terms of how you define that, but please respond to what Mike had to say.
HENRY FARRELL: Okay. This is a good question, and it's something which obviously I read—you mentioned this data in your book, and I've thought about it some.
Here's what I would say. I would say that there are some cases where we know that The Monkey Cage is influential as The Monkey Cage. There is a great story that Mike McFaul has. Mike McFaul, when he was on the National Security Council, used to be the person who Tom Donilon would go to saying, "Tell me what the social science says about X," and Mike would do his best. Obviously, he's a specialist in a particular area, but he would say, "Well, as best as I know, people say this, or this is the person you need to read," or whatever.
One day apparently Donilon comes into his office with a great big grin on his face and says, "I don't need you anymore. I've found this fantastic source called The Monkey Cage, which tells me all I need to know about what social scientists are opinionating about this, that, or the other thing." That, however, I think is probably relatively rare and relatively unusual.
What I think is much, much more common is that we have people who are reading Monkey Cage material and not identifying it as Monkey Cage material or blog material at all. They read something, say, for example—it happens, and we've heard this informally from people who are staffers in State or other places. They're trying to figure out some way that they can tell their boss two or three up the hierarchy what is going on in, say, Place X in Africa, where this person—he or she's a political appointee, and they don't know anything about it.
So what they do is they take a piece from The Monkey Cage and they send it up the line, but not as a piece from a blog, they send it as a piece from The Washington Post, and because it has The Washington Post imprimatur on it, the senior person takes this as being validated in a way that they would not take it if they thought about it as being a piece in a blog alone.
I think that there's very strong reason to believe that many of the people who are saying these things about blogs, they're reading blogs a lot without actually knowing that they're blogs because the old model of 10-15 years back where blogs and the mainstream media were entirely separate from each other, that's gone. We're now in a world where people effectively—the major blogs that are left are primarily blogs that are affiliated or part of some much larger media organization, and people who are reading the blogs aren't identifying them as blogs, they're identifying this as part of The Washington Post.
You can also see this in the way that, for example, people who publish for us, who write for us, identify themselves on their CVs. Very rarely do they say they have written for The Monkey Cage, typically, they put this on their CV as being this article appearing in The Washington Post, so there's a certain kind of reputational effect which minimizes the direct public impact of The Monkey Cage qua Monkey Cage but allows us in a certain sense to leverage the kinds of forces that you correctly identified back in your 2014 piece, the sense that the mainstream media provides good information sources and allows us to use this in an appropriate way.
I think that more generally the ways in which—and this maybe gets back to some of Stephen's argument—we think as best as we can tell that our work is used is a lot of it is junior people trying to use this as quick, straightforward ways to tell people two or three levels up the line what is happening. That is an important way into the policy process.
There also is a lot of interaction that happens on Twitter and other places between people in various parts of the policy framework and academics, which again is rerouting many of these conversations.
To give two examples from the last couple of days, last week we had a quantitative piece by Neil Malhotra and Benjamin Newman on immigration, a very quantitative piece, talking about the survey experiments that they had run, which then gets taken up by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and gives rise to a debate on Twitter between her and Ted Cruz about the merits of this particular perspective.
Last night, while I was prepping my talk, I was also sneaking occasional looks on Twitter, and so I see Jim Goldgeier, who you mentioned, gets involved in a conversation with Dick Haass, who is complaining about the way in which the Trump administration is misusing the financial architecture. Jim says, "Well, you need to read this piece that Henry Farrell and Abe Newman have written," and so I get involved in a back-and-forth with Haass.
So you have these new forms of communication and entanglement between the policy people and the political science people. Here I think War on the Rocks is incredibly successful at that, and more or less for the reasons that you suggest: It is not pure political science, it is not pure policy, it is a format where people from the two different sides can come together and work out a medium of communication of their own.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you. I'm inventing a new rule that we have a 30-second response to the response, and then we'll move on to another question.
But before you answer, I wanted to embed in the answer on the question of blogging. At one point—
MICHAEL DESCH: You're giving me 30 seconds, and then you're telling me what I have to say.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: No, I want you to address this question. You can take an extra 10 seconds to address this part of the question.
But blogging at one point was considered a demerit if you were a young academic trying to get tenure. I think a lot has changed in the last 20-30 years. We all know anecdotes about people—without naming names—who were penalized for not spending time writing articles for peer-reviewed journals and doing this thing called blogging.
Would you concede that that has changed and that at least it's not being held against them, that academics now, apparently we don't say "walk and chew gum" anymore, we say "sing and dance like Beyoncé," but an academic can both write for a peer-reviewed journal as well as blog without having a very negative effect on their careers?
MICHAEL DESCH: Yes. I think that's indisputable. The question is, is it really having an impact?
I think honestly, Henry, we could do a lot more to suss this out. We could trade anecdotes about the impact of particular blogs on particular policies, but I think there is a theoretical literature beginning at least with John Kingdon that would provide some framework, and there could be some hard work if people really cared to know the answers in terms of finding out what exactly people outside of the guild are looking for.
The question I had hoped that you would answer with Steve—now I'm going to put words in Henry's mouth—was one of the very interesting points, which I don't disagree with, in your Chronicle of Higher Education piece, and I thought what you were saying was that I was too narrowly focused just on influencing policymakers and particularly in a democratic political system but also a highly networked, advanced polity that the policy game could be played in a lot of other ways. I'd like to suggest that maybe you could talk a little bit more about that.
It made me think, though, if I'm right that policymakers are limited in their bandwidth in terms of dealing with academic social science, what do we think about influencing people outside of government. They may not be college-educated, or if they were college-educated took two political science courses and things like that.
I do think you're right that the social obligation of academics and political sciences to deal with important questions is certainly broader than just the narrow inside-government policy mechanism, but what are the challenges of doing that, and how would we know if we were having an impact?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: And Henry, when you answer that, perhaps you could also reference this paper you have in the making with Jack Knight from Duke that talks about John Dewey and reaching the public and the importance of the public.
HENRY FARRELL: I think that's the big challenge because I think that the kinds of traditional forms of policy influence we're actually doing a pretty good job on.
When it comes to creating conversation with the broader public it's much, much tougher to figure out how to do that, and I think this is the real challenge we face over the next decade to 15 years, especially in a world where traditional deference to forms of expertise and to the state are withering and we have to figure out—and here it looks like the two of us are in violent agreement on this—how it is that we can engage in what has to be also somewhat of a two-way conversation.
This is where Jack and I draw upon John Dewey. This isn't just about figuring out ways to get the public to listen better to experts, it's about getting experts to engage more directly with the public in figuring out what are the political problems that the public is really exercised about and how to both explain what is going on and to come up with useful solutions. So I think that's something which is very tough.
The other question—and this gets to the question of policy influence. It's really difficult for a variety of reasons, and this is something which I think affects the think tank world, too, is trying to figure out what the hell the impact of various programs is.
One of the reasons why it's difficult is because policymakers are going to take up ideas that are congenial to them and their goals as already defined. So there is a much more difficult problem, which is that of getting policy people or the public to eat their greens and telling them some stuff that is not necessarily what they want to hear.
One of my friends, Heather Hurlburt, who is at New America, talks a lot about the difficulties that she has in getting policymakers to realize that there's an extensive academic literature which says that the ways in which you treat women in a particular society has extensive consequences for the degrees of conflict and for all of these things that policymakers are interested in, but because this doesn't fit into the standard box that the policymakers use to think to about the world and because there isn't an interest out there to try to make them think in this way, this simply does not compute. That kind of influence is I think a perennial problem.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you for that back-and-forth.
Before we open up to the audience, I want to squeeze in one of the 50 questions I have here for you. By the way, the whole evaluative challenge is the bane of existence for those of us dumbwaiters in the foundation world, so we feel your pain.
I'm going to address this directly to Mike, but I'd also love to hear, Henry, your response to this. Another stalwart of Bridging the Gap work is Bruce Jentleson at Duke. Bruce was also on the board of Carnegie Council. Bruce has described what he calls "ritualized addenda," that scholars sometimes feel obligated to slap on to an analytical piece. In a number of occasions they may be naïve or infeasible, but they feel obligated to put this in there.
The question, first of all for you, Mike, specifically is, is it reasonable to assume that a scholar, particularly an early-career academic who has been steeped in the arcane arts of political science, has not had experience with how sausage is made in Washington, is it reasonable to assume that they can, as you suggest, have concrete policy recommendations in their scholarship when there's this asymmetry of real-time information with policymakers and often classified? Is this a bridge too far to expect of academics?
MICHAEL DESCH: That's a difficult question. The easy answer to it is quite obvious. You've got somebody two years out of graduate school who has never served in government, has no real Fingerspitzengefühle for the policy process, and whose expertise may be fairly narrow on the issue. It's not clear to me that that individual is likely on a regular basis to have game-changing policy advice, even if it were in the abstract world really terrific.
On the other hand, though, if it's the case that people are brought up in the discipline not thinking systematically about how their work speaks to broader issues, do you think they're going to wake up the day after they get tenure and all of a sudden become really facile in playing this game? That's point one.
Point two is I remember, I think it was in 2005, Bruce Russett at Yale, who had done a great deal of work on the democratic peace, probably one of the most influential political scientists engaging with that over the years, and he wrote a piece—I think it was in International Studies Review or one of the 10,000 journals the International Studies Association (ISA) has—entitled "Bushwhacking the Democratic Peace," making the very reasonable argument that the argument for going into Iraq or nation-building in Afghanistan based on the democratic peace was not a reasonable extrapolation from how he understood the theory.
I said to myself, "I think you're absolutely right, but where were you in 2002 when the debate about the Iraq War was being engaged?" We looked hard to see if he had weighed in in major media venues on that and didn't find any.
So you run the risk, it seems to me, when you're not thinking systematically about what your work says about likely policy issues, to be in the position of 2005 carping after the fact.
Would it have made any difference? Who knows?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: We know with that letter in The New York Times written by—
MICHAEL DESCH: Not even a speed bump on the road to Baghdad.
HENRY FARRELL: You're absolutely right.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: I can't disagree with you, but it seems to me, if I'm not mistaken, you have made this declarative notion that concrete policy recommendations are the sine qua non of academic work, and I think, you mentioned the democratic—
MICHAEL DESCH: Relevant work.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Okay, but you mentioned democratic peace literature. As you well know, there weren't specific concrete recommendations coming out of that, and the same with Sam Huntington and Paul Kennedy. These were frames of how to think about issues. Maybe that's a point that I'm overexaggerating in terms of your argument, so I'll concede that.
HENRY FARRELL: This is something that The Monkey Cage has a very clear policy on. We do not allow our people to make specific policy recommendations or to get engaged in specific policy debates.
It could be that they say something which makes it clear implicitly that they're commenting on a particular political action, that this is going to have all of these kinds of problematic consequences, but they don't make the final thing, "This is what you should do, and this is what you should not do."
Part of that is to preserve a firewall between what political scientists do as we understand it, which is to provide useful knowledge to the world, and what political actors do, which is to try to say, "Okay, given this knowledge of the world, here are the ways in which you ought to do things."
There are many, many different ways in which you can split this baby up. Max Weber, of course, talks about this a lot, but our sense I think is very much along the lines of what Stephen has just said, which is that what we do is we provide frames. We try to simplify the world in ways that are useful and actionable for policymakers and for the broad public, but without at the same time saying, "Given this and given the way that the world is, you ought to do X or Y or Z," because there are a whole lot of questions of values that people are going to plausibly disagree on in addition to the fact that as has been mentioned, most political scientists do not have any understanding of how the policy process actually works and don't have the ability to tell, Well, this may sound very nice in the abstract, but in practical terms this isn't going to work for this or that reason, or even if it would work, I have zero chance of getting it through the policy process.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thirty-second response.
MICHAEL DESCH: Here our brief interlude of violent agreement ends.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: That's good, because the second vote is coming up.
MICHAEL DESCH: I don't know that we need to hash it out, but I would suggest two things: One is articulating the actual model of how you think what we do facilitates the policy process would be useful. I try to do some of that in the book in terms of dealing with the trickle-down model versus an alternative model there.
But I think—and again, this goes back to Kingdon, and this is really at the heart of Steve Krasner's ruminations on this issue as well—everybody would agree that they're pretty under-specified.
I would just say, though, on the value-free social science piece—and you mentioned Weber, now you've put the quarter in my jukebox. Weber certainly was an advocate of value-free social science. He was also deeply engaged in concrete policy from the beginning of his career in the East Elbian land question to his work on the Weimar Constitution, and consistently through it.
Talcott Parsons has skewed our understanding of what Weber's view was of value-free social science, but again that's my pet rock.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you. We will move from the East Elbian land question to the Upper East Side to open up to our audience for questions. I see several hands going up. First, Dick Betts.
QUESTION: It's not only a question of tension between rigor and relevance but also a potential gap between relevance and influence, and how you measure either. This also relates to the tension between a strictly value-free social science approach avoiding normative commentary and what is likely to be influential, since policymakers generally are looking not only for truth but mainly for ammunition.
I wonder if you could maybe link this to or just elaborate a little bit more on the incentive system in academia, which it seems to me, despite all of the ways in which policy-relevant work can be done, is not friendly to it.
For example, the question of whether lack of experience is an inhibition, one of the best things that a young academic could do is a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship, which gets you a high-level position in the government—at least it used to before the recent complications—because people knew they could get a really smart staffer for free who didn't count against their personnel allotment, and that experience became life-changing for a fair number of academics.
But my impression is in most departments now at best that would be a matter of indifference, and at worst it would be held against you as a diversion from proper devotion of your time to cutting-edge theoretical work.
Also, the decline—which is only my impression; I don't know what a careful study would show—of policy analysis as a common research enterprise in political science seems to me is generally discouraged.
MICHAEL DESCH: Henry, do you want to take the first whack, and I'll follow up?
HENRY FARRELL: I think there have been real problems with the incentive structures in political science. Stephen referred indirectly to cases of people who had been effectively denied tenure in the past for being too public, and one of them is my co-author, who has since gone from strength to strength, I think it's fair to be said. It all worked out reasonably well.
The query that I would have—I think that it is a bad idea for political science and the policy process to become too closely enmeshed with each other from the perspective of both. Political science, at the end of the day, needs to be committed to trying to figure out the world in ways that are partly detached from the political needs and exigencies of the day. Political scientists should not become politicians, and to the extent that they become politicians, a lot of their value is going to be lost.
So the question then is, which of the variety of ungainly compromise solutions should you be striving for? What I would like to see—and I think we are moving closer to this—is a world in which on the one hand it's probably going to be difficult to get departments to think about policy relevance as being something which ought to be part of your tenure package in a certain sense, which is where of course many of these decisions are taken.
This is also something we've thought about in The Monkey Cage as well. If we try to come up with measurements that would help people to make that case, would this be a good or bad thing? Then we had immediate terror at the thought of, "Here is yet another burden that we're heaping upon the shoulders of assistant professors."
But what I would like to see are ways in which when political scientists get the taste for engagement with the public that they then begin to work this back into their own research so that the research questions which they study are guided as much by the needs of the outside world as by the internal demands of the academy, and I think we are moving closer to that, and for better or for worse Donald Trump is part of that story.
It's very obvious that very few political scientists like what is happening with the current administration, and I think that there has been an explosion of work outside of international relations, for example, the Levitsky and Ziblatt book, which is trying to weave together the kinds of things that political scientists study and the broader needs of the world in ways which are useful.
Of course, there's always the danger in that, that the more that you get pulled into the public debate the more difficult it is to maintain the level of detachment which I think Weber points to as being important. Here I guess what I would say in response to Mike is that he's right that Weber got engaged in politics in a variety of ways, but he always kept a pretty clear firewall between that and his work as a teacher and as a scholar, and as somebody who myself engages a lot in political commentary that's something that I try to do as well, and I think it's what the vocation of a social scientist is.
MICHAEL DESCH: Dick is absolutely right. We have the data in the book on the decline of the percentage of Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (IAF) fellows who are academics as opposed to government people or people from industry or something else.
I think the first year of the IAF program was 1967 maybe or 1966, and through—I think the last year we have data—2015 it goes from about 100 percent to basically an average now of 30 percent, with one year at zero. Exactly what's going on has been the subject of some debate. As you know, the Council thought, Well, maybe the problem is that the IAF template was primarily aimed at people who were assistant professors, and that's a hard period for people to get off the ranch even for a year, so the Council started tweaking that and making available essentially an IAF to more senior people in their career.
How much impact that's having I'm not sure at this point, and why exactly people are less and less inclined to do IAFs I have my suspicions about that.
But let me tell you a story.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: A short story.
MICHAEL DESCH: Once upon a time—
Every year we have this emerging scholars conference where we invite six of the top hotshot pre-docs from around the country to come and make a presentation in their work in the general area of international security, and it's always great for me to learn what the younger folks are doing.
In particular, we had a presentation from this guy Marc Grinberg, who's at Stanford, on the strategy of foreign military aid. Grinberg, before he went to the Ph.D. program at Stanford—and by the way, he's working with Jim Fearon and folks of that approach there, so this work is very much traditional political science, normal science. But when he was introducing his topic, he said, "You know, I was in government. I was a presidential management intern," and then he was an IAF fellow before he went back to graduate school.
He said, "In the scholarly literature on this topic, nobody had ever thought about the strategy of counterbalancing in giving military aid."
You think about it. The obvious case was we're giving all this military aid to Israel, but for political reasons we also need to give it to Egypt and Jordan. In fact, that's pretty common. If we give military aid to Pakistan, we're also going to give it to India.
His point was that he would have never thought about this alternative explanation if he had exclusively looked at the scholarly literature on the question. I think that there are actually a lot of instances where that's the case.
I want to be clear. I'm not arguing that in Mike Desch's ideal world we all become fleet professors, where we're all basically like Henry Kissinger on the shuttle between Cambridge and Washington, but I do think that opportunities like the IAF program or Congressional Fellows program are really beneficial for those of us who choose to make political science an academic career, because I think it really gives you an insight into the way the world works that not having done it and strictly relying on the literature you wouldn't have.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you. I'll make another shameless plug that—
MICHAEL DESCH: Him, too?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: —Carnegie Corporation in fact supports that specialized IAF for tenured political scientists and other tenured scholars who did not have any experience in the policy world.
MICHAEL DESCH: What do the metrics say?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: We've just started it. The first crew is just ending up, and we're considering a renewal for that project.
I also want to add that the issues that Dick Betts is talking about strangely enough are also affecting schools of international affairs, where one would think by definition policy engagement would be an important criterion for tenure, hiring, and promotion, and even there there's a struggle, so it's a broad challenge.
By the way, I forgot to mention. Whoever asks a question, if you could identify yourself, that would be helpful. Next is Lawrence Mead and the gentleman here.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
I have a fundamentalist view of this question. I think to have policy influence you really have to make a distinctive argument that has somehow not been made, that's important, some reality that is neglected. Mike just said there can be something in the literature that's utterly unanticipated, there can be something never discussed, never written about.
My experience is if you do that, it is simultaneously a scientific finding and a policy finding, and if you do it, the world comes looking for you. You don't have any problem having entrée to government. They call you up, they're looking for you. And you get called to congressional hearings almost immediately because you're filling a hole that no one else has filled.
That makes me think that both our speakers are in a way paying too much attention or the wrong kind of attention to the academic problems of political science. I think what Henry is saying pays insufficient attention to what I call the "scholastic problem" within political science, the focus on method, on narrow subjects, on over-specialization, and so on. That does in fact make it hard for the junior scholars to see any big reality. They can't do that. They're tied down to the literature by the canons of that kind of research. They can't see anything new at all.
When I talk to our graduate students at NYU, who are all like this, and I raise big issues that they've never thought of, they're speechless. They don't have any way to respond because they're tied down to these very scholastic questions. So I think you're paying insufficient attention to the academic problem within political science.
On the other hand, Mike, you could say, is paying too much attention because you haven't said anything about the other big side of IR thinking, which is Washington, the think tanks, the congressional staffs, all the quasi-academic positions that exist outside academia, where the same constraints are not present. That would seem to me in a sense to make the academic problem altogether minor because there's no way to stop the people at the think tanks.
They don't have to publish in the journals. That's exactly why they're different. They have a much better chance to see the big reality that somebody else is missing.
I say to both of you, how do you provide the opportunity for a fresh insight to find its audience, and if you do that, what I find is you don't have any competition. You make that argument, and nobody else makes it, not for decades afterward because there's some deep resistance to making it. And if you're able to make it, government comes to you. How do we promote that?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Who wants to go first? Henry?
HENRY FARRELL: All I can say to you is what I say to my grad students, which is, "You've got to read really widely. Don't just read political science. Don't just read international relations. Read sociology, read history, read everything." If you look at the work that people have done on creativity, where creativity by and large comes from is from people who are able to bridge between very different ways of thinking. So, if you're stuck just reading what your advisors have done and what your peers are doing in the same small, narrow area, you're never going to be able to break out.
That's not just a problem about the relationship between the academy and policy, that's a problem about relationships within the academy itself, the ways in which we don't have nearly as much cross-fertilization happening as we ought to, and this is something which I see at the moment in the areas that I look at.
There is a very, very interesting convergence happening between political scientists and the history of international finance, where I think people are suddenly beginning to discover each other, discover ideas, discover new data, and discover new ways of thinking about the world. But doing this is hard.
MICHAEL DESCH: If I could just make two unrelated responses to that. I guess directly to you, Lawrence, but then to Henry on the disciplinarity piece, I think you're absolutely right. I think there's a larger problem with our marketplace of ideas. I think it's broke.
My book is about a small piece of it, which is the interface between academia or social science and the policy world in national security, but there's a broader issue out there.
Henry had referred to the death of expertise. I think this is a huge problem, but a problem that was animating my poking him about if we can't talk to policymakers how are we going to talk to—I'm going to use a Menckenism—Boobus americanus, who is inclined to think we're tenured radicals and lotus eaters in the first place.
You're also right that the ecology of knowledge production for policymakers has changed very dramatically. There's now a permanent both not-for-profit and for-profit infrastructure supporting government that they don't need to go to academia for a lot of stuff, and the back-and-forth between academia and those institutions that you saw maybe in the 1950s and 1960s is sort of a thing of the past.
So it's a subset of a bigger problem. I'm just trying to say something about something I know a little bit about in this.
The disciplinarity issue, I agree with you completely, but in agreeing with you I'm wondering why you aren't more sympathetic to my critique of disciplinary dynamics. We're going to have a workshop—sponsored by Carnegie, like everything I do—on Monday and Tuesday in Washington. We're going to talk about the challenges from both the academic side and from the government and the philanthropic side in fostering interdisciplinary work, which everybody agrees is the future for a lot of big issues.
For example, at Notre Dame we hopped on the neuroscience bandwagon appropriately. It seemed like a very important thing to be working on. It's also—or at least in our original vision sought to be—interdisciplinary between the College of Arts and Letters, Psychology, and Biology.
My sense is that it was much harder to do and has had much less success for reasons largely having to do with incommensurable disciplinary cultures, and I think you could tell that story about a lot of other multidisciplinary ventures. It's just hard to break down the silos, and I think the same problem you have within the silos is also what makes interdisciplinarity an uphill struggle.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Sir.
QUESTION: I'm Krishen Mehta with the Aspen Institute's Business in Society Program.
I'd like to frame the question of whether political science is relevant or not in the context of a very important policy issue that the world is facing today that could determine our future as the human race, and I refer to the very dismal and concerning state of relations between the United States and Russia at the present time.
We know that there are B-52 bombers right now deployed. There could be an attack on an Iranian vessel or American aircraft carrier. Russia could go to the defense of Iran, and we could all be vaporized a week from now, and it wouldn't matter what is in Monkey Cage and Twitter or anything else.
I would ask you, sir, both gentlemen who are from the academic field, if political science is truly relevant, why is there not sufficient debate that we see coming out, pointing out through the lessons of history, through the lessons of political science, at the very fragile state of affairs we are living in today what we can learn from history and from political science and to caution civilization about the very fragile world we are living in.
As you all know, a hundred years ago when Andrew Carnegie passed away World War I was just over. Thirty million lives were lost because an Austrian was killed by a Serb, and we lost 30 million lives. We could have billions of lives lost if there is a crisis now.
So I would ask if political science is truly relevant, why are academic institutions not taking a stand that is much more vocal and clear to guide policymakers?
In addition, as you know, media is taking very one-sided stands on this issue. Think tanks are generally silent or again one-sided, and so I would hope that academic institutions perhaps would prove their relevance by being more vocal and assertive in this very fragile state we are living in today.
MICHAEL DESCH: On the particular issue you're talking about, you're sort of preaching to the choir in my view. Not only myself and my colleagues at Notre Dame, but there is a larger group of like-minded people in academic international security studies who are concerned about many of the developments in recent American national security policy, including the possibility of a conflict with Iran. I think to the extent that we've been able to opine on these issues, we have definitely tried to do it.
The question is, what do our colleagues who are not IR people and engagé think of our efforts. Stephen referred to a letter that John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt drafted in the summer of 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War, where I think 34 or 38 of us had said we didn't think that this was a good idea, it wasn't in America's national interest.
The interesting thing was first of all they reached out to a lot more than 38 people to sign the letter, and a lot of people didn't sign the letter for probably a variety of reasons.
But second, we also took a lot of guff by way of laughing up the sleeve, unfortunate comparisons with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at windmills, which I thought was telling in terms of the attitude of the model political scientist.
What was the matter with this? If what was the matter with it was that it was a waste of time, they were probably right, because as I said before this effort was not even a speed bump on the road to Baghdad.
But as a moral issue, of the few things that I've done over my career that I look back on and say I feel the best about, being out front on this issue is one of those that I'm glad I did it. But it wasn't a bandwagon, this effort, and I think the same is true today.
I don't think you should ask the question to those of us who are engaged in the debates, but you should ask the question to people who are not engaged in the debate why they're not.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Henry.
HENRY FARRELL: I would say I think things are different to some extent to the way that they were at the beginning of the Iraq War. When Mike is talking about Iran, I think it's very clear that there is a strong consensus among the experts, both in the academy and in the parts of government which touch upon these things, that war with Iran would be an incredibly stupid idea.
I can think of one prominent exception to this, who will remain nameless, but in general from talking to people and from engaging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) I think this is something which has had some real consequences, at least in conversations and debates on the Hill, which are much less jingoistic about this than the administration is.
But then the troubling question I think for all of us—and this also applies to the think tanks we were talking about, because I think the think tanks are in trouble as well. Which would you prefer to be? Would you prefer to be an expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or even Heritage, or would you prefer to have a regular guest slot on Fox & Friends if you're trying to make headway and get your policy preferences heard in this administration? At the very best, it's a toss-up.
So then the question becomes, to what extent do the traditional forms of expertise—which are what we can engage in—throw sand in the gears and prevent some of the crazy from happening that otherwise might happen? I think there's grounds for very, very, very cautious optimism but no more than very, very, very cautious optimism, and that could turn to very considerable pessimism at the drop of a pin.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you, Henry. I wasn't intending to be an advocate for work at Carnegie, but I'd be remiss as—
MICHAEL DESCH: Is Vartan here somewhere?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: —I see some of my colleagues in not mentioning—and after all, Carnegie is on Madison Avenue—that we have supported engagement initially with the Soviet Union from 1946 and later with Russia and continued in all kinds of ways—research, Track II, multimedia. We keep pushing against some doors, hoping that some will open because we also recognize this as a major challenge in the world.
QUESTION: Bob Palmer. I'm a physician and former academic.
As I've listened to the discussion, I've thought about what would happen if you replaced political in your term by biological sciences because there are so many parallels. You have basic research, you have applied research, you have the problem of turning research into policy at the governmental level, and I wonder whether there's an opportunity for the parallel to shed any light on the question you're asking.
MICHAEL DESCH: Actually, at this thing we're doing in DC, one of the speakers is an old friend of mine who's a research physician at the medical college of the University of Wisconsin, who will be addressing exactly that question and I think—if I'm divining what your take on it is—will speak chapter and verse about his own career and the challenges of dealing with applied research in a university environment where a lot of his career was decided on by people in the disciplines, particularly biology.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: I should add, I think Stephen Evera is going to be there as well.
MICHAEL DESCH: Yes, he will.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: He has long discussed—this is the MIT political scientist—how social science should emulate the natural sciences in being problem-focused and interdisciplinary by nature to solve a problem, and break out of the disciplinary silos that social science seems to be stuck in, and has used that as a model and in fact proposed interdisciplinary departments. How feasible that will be in the near term is another question, but it's an interesting idea.
Henry, any comment on that, and then I think we'll have one more question.
HENRY FARRELL: I don't have anything very useful to say except to agree broadly.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Susan, you're the last questioner from the floor. Susan Woodward, by the way.
QUESTION: In the spirit of Henry Farrell going back hundreds of years to quote people, my colleague at Yale, Ed Lindblom, liked to use the term "usable knowledge," not useful. I think that's very important for this discussion.
Why do I say that? Because this discussion has been very narrow between scholarship on the one hand, academic political science, and policymakers mainly in Washington, government on the other hand. There has been a little bit around the edges, but that's it.
For me, one of the most important things about political science is as a teaching tool. We're giving knowledge to people who will do things themselves. At my university, The Graduate Center of City University of New York, we've long had a specialty on social movement scholars, so our students learn a beautiful, rich academic literature about social movements that they can then take out and use.
For example, Henry Farrell, when you talk about your letter in 2002, we had hundreds of thousands of people on the street of New York at the time. That was at least as important as 32 people signing a letter.
HENRY FARRELL: More important.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Woodward]: I think so.
What I would like to say is that we have a certain portion of people who come to do Ph.D.s with us for many decades now, for reasons of people like Frances Piven, who want to be activists, but they come to do a Ph.D. so they can get usable knowledge for activism. I think this whole discussion is a bit too narrow.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Gentlemen?
HENRY FARRELL: I will agree wholeheartedly, and I think Lindblom's work on democracy gives us some very, very valuable tools for starting to think about how to do this well and properly, and I think something that we really need to recover is understanding how "the intelligence of democracy" works and how it's beginning to work in different ways.
I think one of the interesting challenges that we have, for example, when we're thinking about policy is we're not just talking to traditional policy experts. If we wanted to return to the question of the Green New Deal, this is not being driven by the usual policy think tanks.
There are some people like Sean McElwee, who's in a very tiny think tank called Data for Progress, which is very connected to the movement. There are other people who are much more directly engaged in movement politics, and there are academics like Jessica Green and Bentley Allan, who are trying to figure out on the fly new ways of creating interfaces between political science and movements in a world where popular understanding and popular political movements are becoming a crucial form of policy change.
MICHAEL DESCH: My assigned role is the skunk at the relevance garden party. Apropos your comment about teaching—and it pains me to say this—in both of our policymaker surveys, when we asked policymakers what they thought were the most useful roles for academics, training the next generation of policymakers was relatively low down on their agenda.
In fact, we asked another question, which basically was along the lines of, "Where do you get the storehouse of knowledge that you use most often day to day?" We have a 100-percent pie chart. The amount that they said they got from formal academic training was on the order of about 30 percent, and the single largest chunk of useful knowledge came from a combination of on-the-job training and on-the-job experience.
This is a huge wake-up call for us because I would have thought again before we had the survey results that this would be the one area that everybody could agree that we in the academy would have the most impact through, and the fact that policymakers don't see that should really start some soul-searching, in my humble opinion.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Woodward] [off-mic]: Didn't you ask the question at the beginning about the difference between relevance and—
MICHAEL DESCH: Influence.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Woodward] [off-mic]: And you're just talking about the group you're aiming to influence, who I say is too narrow. I think you didn't hear what I said.
MICHAEL DESCH: I did hear what you said, and in fact that was the gist of my exchange with Henry because as I said initially I think he's right and you're right that in the democratic political system just focusing on K Street lobbying of government is too narrow and probably not sufficient.
What makes me a little bit skeptical of that is to say if we're having trouble selling our goods to relatively highly educated policymakers who know a little bit about our discipline, how are we going to explain to a broader public that is not as engaged in what we're doing, what we're trying to sell?
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: I'm going to ask then, given the time constraint, initially we were going to have five minutes each for closing arguments, as it were. We've got two minutes each for each of you to say whatever you'd like, and then we will commence with the second vote and the tally.
Henry, do you want to start off?
HENRY FARRELL: Okay. Very quickly, the reason I disagree with Mike is because I think we're doing considerably better than he believes on two fronts.
First of all, I think that we really need to get away from the internal fights within the political science academy between qualitative and quantitative, that they both have their professional deformations, which are problematic. The key is try to figure out ways in which we can get political scientists from a variety of different perspectives, a variety of different methodologies, to engage more actively with real public problems and to engage in ways which are useful.
Here I think that the evidence that we have is that a lot of political scientists are in fact doing this, and they're doing this in the ways that Mike suggested they should be doing. Forums like The Monkey Cage allow you to publish in a regular newspaper and allow you to publish real, succinct, precise, easily understandable pieces which relate your knowledge and relate your professional experience and your research understanding to a broad public. I think that this is something good and important which we need to build on.
But the more important thing, I think, is that we need to move away from this fight to the broader sets of questions, which I think we have begun to grapple with a little bit today, which is given that many of the assumptions on which old models, old arguments were made are falling apart, we need to start to think about how it is that political science and academic expertise more generally can serve useful purposes, can communicate broadly in useful ways in a world which is dramatically and radically changing around us as we see and in a world where the standard kinds of modes, the dumbwaiters, to use Stephen's analogy, between the academy and the policy process are changing, some of them going in all sorts of deranged directions, some of them being lost forever behind the walls, and others perhaps moving in new ways which provide us with opportunities that we ought to start thinking about exploiting.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Mike, final word.
MICHAEL DESCH: I really appreciate the opportunity to engage Henry on this issue and back and forth. I have huge respect for him—
HENRY FARRELL: Likewise.
MICHAEL DESCH: —and particularly for The Monkey Cage effort. Also, I want to hear more war stories from him about his late colleague Lee Sigelman, who seemed like a really remarkable guy, and I just wasn't savvy enough at the time that I had the opportunity to meet him to ask him all the questions that I would ask today.
The point of consensus—and this shouldn't be minimized—is we all agree that we should have broader impact for the work that we're doing. I'm glad that Henry feels this way. I think a lot of scholars—to an extent a lot of our colleagues also feel this way, and that's progress I think.
Where we disagree is exactly how much impact we're really having. There is a long tradition of political scientists, pretty well documented, overestimating the influence that they have, and it seems to me the check on that is for us, in terms of thinking about how we're doing what we're doing, to consciously speak to broader audiences and ask those audiences what it is they're looking for from us.
The surveys that we've done of policymakers are animated by the desire to say, "You guys and gals are the consumers. What do you like about what we're doing? What don't you like about what we're doing?" I think there's a lot more room for doing it.
The original piece that we did and the follow-up by no means exhaust the area that political science could potentially have an impact, but I just don't think we have a good enough sense from the people we're trying to reach of whether we're reaching them.
Not that the anecdotes are not dispositive in a way, but we're political scientists. We know how to poll people. It's hard, particularly polling policymakers, but you can do it. I've done it twice now. So I think that's very, very important.
The last thing is the political science in the public sphere and how we talk in a world in which confidence in the old marketplace of ideas notion of knowledge in a democracy seems to be eroding, I don't think we have really made much progress in figuring out why that happened and where we're going.
There's good work on some of these things, but I think there's a lot more work that needs to be done that we could be doing but aren't.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you. The debate has formally ended, and I urge all of you in the room and those tuning in online to please vote now.
We have five minutes to go for my colleagues to tally the votes.
While we're doing that, the competition has ended gentlemen, but we're going to vamp for a few minutes before the tally is made and can be announced.
I want to pose a question that's not part of the debate itself, but it's relevant to it, and that is: We've been talking about bridging the gap. It's a challenge that Carnegie Corporation has been working on for a long time.
I'd like to hear from each of you what you think are the particular challenges for bridging the gap in the Trump era. There have always been challenges. What are the particular challenges now, and what needs to be done that hadn't been done before to try to address those challenges?
Who wants to start?
HENRY FARRELL: That's an enormous question. I think one of the key questions that I have is, how do you preserve as best as you can in the hope that things are going to get better in the institutions and the reservoirs of knowledge that you need to make things work? Because you look at what's happening in the government, you look at the fleeing of employees from departments who carry a lot of specialized technical knowledge, you look at the difficulties that you see on the conservative side of the spectrum, with I think a lot of people in think tanks not sure of what their jobs are anymore. One strategy is to try to preserve this in the hope that things are going to get better.
The second is to try to figure out, "Okay, if things aren't going to get better, what are the ways in which you can still help to try to bring knowledge into the process, even if the means are going to be radically different," and trying to figure out which bets to place on which side of that particular balance I think is a huge, huge challenge that I'm happier that you have to face than I do.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you.
MICHAEL DESCH: I agree with Henry on the monasteries-in-the-Dark-Age challenge for our discipline or our guild, not just our discipline. I think that's a big issue.
I think another issue we ought to think about, though, and my key assumption here is the current administration is a symptom rather than a cause of most of what I see has gone wrong with American politics.
If that's right, then the challenge is for us to figure out in a hyperpolarized environment where almost all of us are anti-Trumpers or never-Trumpers, are we going to be in a position where we're not going to be able to recognize the one or two times where the blind pig finds an acorn at night in the barnyard, where the administration does something right, or where the problems that our country faces are not caused by the Trump administration but caused by other deep-seated problems that we don't fully understand yet?
I think we are being provoked and challenged. To respond indignantly is understandable, but I hope we can also maintain at least some of our distance.
That's why, by the way, my argument for relevance is not the Henry Kissinger/Zbigniew Brzezinski declare a pox on all universities and get out of the academic business. What I'm fighting for is a balance between rigor and relevance within academia, which I think has a hugely important role to play not only in the generation of knowledge but also in the generation of good ideas for the policy problems society faces.
STEPHEN DEL ROSSO: Thank you. Colleagues, am I correct that the polling stations have closed?
I just want to say whatever the dysfunctionality that we see in political science I'm inspired by our two political scientists here today. It gives me faith in the future of the discipline.
Okay. We voted once before the debate. We voted twice after the debate, and the debate winner will be judged on the percentage change in the vote from the first round to the second.
So, on the motion, "Is political science lapsing into irrelevance?" on the first vote 43 percent of our respondents said, yes, it is lapsing into irrelevance, 57 percent said no.
Second round, final vote, 64 percent of the respondents said that political science is indeed lapsing into irrelevance, 36 percent said no, a loss of how many? Twenty-one. In that case, the winner of the final vote is the Yes motion.
Mike Desch, go up and celebrate. Let me congratulate again both of our debaters for I think an outstanding discussion and to our audience here and online for contributing to this.
Thank you very much. All the best.