Do Policymakers Heed the Advice of Academics?

Traditionally, the archetypal image of American political science has been that of scholars locked away in a proverbial ivory tower, far removed from Washington, literally and metaphorically. This image is crumbling. I would cite examples of recent works in political science that accomplish the always-difficult task of outlining the real-life policy implications of the research findings but our servers would crash from the sheer amount of text I would have to devote to this post (I would also never finish my dissertation, but that’s another matter). Yet, politicians still make policy as if extensive political science research on the matter has not been conducted. If academics really are reaching out to these policymakers, then what’s going on?

There is plenty of reason to believe that, in 2012, it is now policymakers, not academics, who are the cause of the storied disconnect between academics and policymakers. In a recent piece in the New York Times, David Leonhardt suggests that the fatal economic mistake of the Obama administration was underestimating the severity of the financial crisis, against the advice of academic research, in particular that by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.

…By late 2008, the full depth of the crisis was not clear, but enough of it was. A few prominent liberal economists were publicly predicting a long slump, as was Mr. Rogoff, a Republican. The Obama team openly compared its transition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and, in private, discussed the Reinhart-Rogoff work.

So why didn’t that work do more to affect the team’s decisions?

Do policymakers heed the advice of academics? I’m not so sure.

Three points can and should be mentioned in the defense of policymakers. The first is that the vast majority of policymakers must take into account domestic considerations when weighing policy options. Although practitioners and academics are both accountable to their respective audiences, the former deal with much higher stakes on a practical level (i.e., they could lose their jobs in the next election). One clear-cut yet public example of a politician agreeing in substance to one policy but choosing another for electoral reasons came earlier this spring when President Obama assured Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that a new missile defense deal could only be struck after his presumed re-election. Such considerations must obviously factor significantly in the decision-making process of elected officials. Academics are, by design, exempt.

To make matters more difficult for politicians hoping to incorporate academic know-how, the academic community is often divided, with research from similar sources producing contradictory advice. For instance, Leonhardt is quick to emphasize that the voices arguing that the recession would be longer than expected, albeit influential, were a minority. This makes policy-making a lose-lose proposition. Whatever the choice, if the choice leads to an undesirable outcome, there will almost certainly exist academic research arguing against it. This is a fair point. Indeed, this process reflects the perhaps most difficult aspect of making policy.

Moreover, we only witness the outcomes of whatever deliberation process results in the formation of policy. In reality, practitioners must weigh several options, of which academic advice might be one. Sometimes these deliberations result in the formation of policy that resembles political science conventional wisdom, majority opinion or even consensus. Other times it might not. To conclude that policymakers never heed academic advice because of the existence of the latter would be to select on the dependent variable and, in the process, make a fundamental inferential error. In other words, the mere fact that politicians make decisions with which many academics would disagree should not lead us to believe that they ignore political science research. But even if they don’t ignore it, do policymakers heed it? Although we cannot know definitively, political scientists testifying in Congress, public deliberation of policies, and government white papers and memos citing academic findings lend credence to the argument that they do consider academic opinions in the decision-making process.

Consideration aside, one wonders how seriously academic voices are taken. The notion that domestic considerations or disagreements within the academic community prevent politicians from making policy in accordance with academic advice relies on this point—that policymakers do indeed take academic opinion seriously behind the scenes. For instance, consider the lively debate around Kenneth Waltz’s controversial argument, published in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, that a nuclear Iran would be a force for stability in the Middle East. Thus far, the United States has taken a relatively hawish stance toward Iran, with some people—chiefly conservatives—promoting an even harder line that emphasizes military strikes. Is Waltz really taken seriously in policy circles?

It is an ongoing mission of academics to make their research speak to the policy community. The extent to which political scientists accomplish this task is, admittedly, up for debate. However, the entire enterprise is premised on the assumption that when political scientists talk, someone will listen. Recent history casts doubt upon whether this is always the case. Even more disconcertingly, the decision-making process itself often does not appear to consider research that is considered important and impactful within academia, disagreements notwithstanding. Since politicians establish the bounds of public discourse on policy, this can have the unintended consequence of making important political science seem out-of-touch, extreme, and, at worst, irrelevant.

All is not lost, however. As I have suggested here, there exists a great degree of variance of academic incorporation across Presidential administrations, Congresses, and policies. And indeed, many policies–especially on a day-to-day basis–do ostensibly integrate the advice and research of political scientists. Moving forward, academics must continue to reach out to policy community as we increasingly have over the past couple of decades. Policy-makers may not always come calling but when they do, we should be ready.

For more of his attempts at reaching out to the policy community, follow William on Twitter


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