Activating the Power of Ideas


From north Korea to South Sudan to East Ukraine, countless complex problems are cropping up all around the world today. So why aren’t policymakers more receptive to ideas from international scholars who study those very problems? In an example torn from today’s headlines—the need for a strategy to combat the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—officials and terrorism experts disagree on the seriousness of the threat and how to respond, with no clear sign of collaboration between the two groups.

This is just one missed opportunity among many cases where sound academic ideas fail to inspire political action. Carnegie Corporation has long been committed to hunting for solutions to this divide between the worlds of academia and policy. Here, Stephen Del Rosso, International Peace and Security program director, explains why the Corporation has launched a major new $5 million bridging-the-gap initiative.

What is the gap and why does it matter?

Alexander George, the late, much revered scholar of international affairs at Stanford University and a member of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, coined the phrase “bridging the gap” in the early 1990s to refer to the widespread sense of the declining practical relevance of academic research as a guide to policymakers and, more broadly, as part of the public discourse on global affairs.

There are myriad reasons for that gap. In a nutshell, academic writing has been seen, especially of late, as providing increasingly precise answers to increasingly irrelevant questions. And that trend has led to academic writing that is not only largely unintelligible to nonacademics, but also, in the words of one commentator, “aesthetically offensive.” So the question we must ask is, how useful is academic research in areas of national security and international relations to policymakers? If the answer is “not very,” what can we do to fix it?

To be clear, everything we do in Carnegie Corporation’s International Peace and Security Program—from our nuclear work, to our work on China and Russia, to African peacebuilding—relates to this bridging-the-gap theme. Over the past several years, we have supported projects that have approached this ongoing challenge from various angles. But the fact remains, academic research only rarely translates into policy; it’s a nonlinear path between idea and action, and many factors enter into the equation.

For one, as University of Southern California scholars Abraham Lowenthal and Mariano Bertucci point out in their new book, Scholars, Policymakers, and International Affairs: Finding Common Cause, having academic research influence policymaking is no guarantee that the policy will be sound, or that it will work in practice. In fact, throughout history there have been a number of cases in which academic research has had what could be considered a pernicious effect, from racist immigration policies between 1935 and the early 1960s, to the conduct of the Vietnam War, to the socially regressive structural adjustment policies of the early 1980s, and more recently to some of the austerity measures that have had mixed success in restoring economic stability in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. But we do believe, that ultimately, the balance is more positive than negative. We also believe that the gap between the academy and the policy world is bridgeable. And we believe we can help construct that bridge, which will contribute not only to better policy but to better teaching and research. 

Additionally, good policy is informed by good ideas, and good ideas are not formed in a vacuum. At Carnegie Corporation we turn to the academic community for the generation of those ideas. It’s particularly important at this moment in philanthropy because a number of our peer organizations have deemphasized the role of academic research in their work in favor of advocacy. But we believe that before we get the message out, we have to get the message right. And we turn toward the academics as generators of that insight. 


Bridging the gap has a long legacy at the Corporation; it’s in our DNA. Andrew Carnegie was an inveterate bridge builder—he believed in the power of ideas to promote socially positive activities, and arguably the biggest idea he had was to abolish war. He established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Peace Palace in The Hague, and other institutions to try to prevent wars and mitigate their worst effects. A very interesting and not very well-known piece of evidence about our early involvement in bridging the gap is a report by the American Political Science Association of a grant that was given by Frederick Keppel, president of the Corporation from 1923 to 1941.

In 1927 Keppel made this grant of $7,500 to create something called the Committee on Policy for the purpose of bringing together what he called academic political scientists with those involved in the operation of government. President Keppel felt that both sides could learn from each other. That grant was renewed in 1930 for $67,500 (real money in those days) and there were 49 meetings held under the chairmanship of Harold Dodds, who later became president of Princeton University. In President Dodds's judgment, this undertaking had inestimable value both to the academics and to the policymakers at that time.

What are the distinctions between the two cultures of the academy and the policy world that Alexander George described three decades ago? According to Lowenthal and Bertucci, building on work by other scholars, such as Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, the role of the academic is to analyze and reflect in order to understand and explain. The role of the policy maker is to act, to promote positive policy outcomes, and to prevent negative outcomes. The academic takes time to develop his or her research and conduct it; the policy maker needs rapid responses to unfolding events. The academic values methodological rigor, nuance, contingency; the policy maker wants straightforward, clear, concise answers to complex questions. Academics zealously guard their independence and intellectual freedom. There are, in fact, norms such as peer review designed to protect that freedom. They see this as an essential part of their identity, and they are less likely, I would argue, to trim their sails to the political winds, or to self-censor their opinions because they’re seeking an appointment in the next administration. That is one distinction I would draw between academics and some think tank experts—even some we support. In government, one is subject to political and bureaucratic expediency.

As Lowenthal and Bertucci further point out, the aim of an academic is also to produce original ideas, which involve intellectual property rights. In contrast, a government policy maker draws on, synthesizes, and integrates information from multiple sources— usually without attribution. And finally, most academics toil alone. They seek individual recognition. Their professional advancement is based mainly on writing intended for other specialists, in jargon only other specialists are likely to understand, and the citations based on that writing. For the policy maker, professional advancement is based largely on political and administrative skills, the ability to manage interpersonal relations, maneuver within a bureaucratic hierarchy, build support for a political position, and engage and persuade the decision maker up the hierarchy. Clearly, these are two different cultures, but we contend that they are complementary. We see them as mutually supportive and believe there can be a bridge to a positive outcome.

There are two essential contributions academics make in the policy realm. One is the ability of academics to develop new frameworks and concepts that help policymakers think about and understand problems—what University of Ottawa scholar and former Corporation grantee, Roland Paris, calls “ordering the world.” Such notions as human security, women in development, fragile states, and responsibility to protect are all concepts based on academic research that have percolated within the policy realm. Most important, and possibly most underappreciated, is the ability and role of academics to prepare the terrain for future consideration of policy options—what I would call loosening the intellectual bolts on issues that are not quite ready for public consideration.

A classic example initiated by a Carnegie Corporation grant is Gunnar Myrdal’s famous book An American Dilemma, published in 1944, which languished on the shelf until it was pulled down in 1954 and became the intellectual foundation for the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. More recently, when there was something called the Arab Spring, the 100 Islam-focused Carnegie Scholars we supported suddenly became the intellectual group the media turned to in order to analyze what was going on in that part of the world.

One more major challenge facing both policymakers and academics is the increasing specialization in the world. To quote someone closely associated with the Corporation, “Knowledge has become so varied, so extensive, so minute, that no individual can master any more than just one branch.” That was said by Andrew Carnegie in 1902. One can only imagine what he would say in 2014! To quote Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican novelist, “One of the greatest challenges facing modern civilization is translating information into knowledge.” The additional challenge today is translating that knowledge into understanding, insight, and wisdom that can be used by policymakers. At the end of the day, that’s the essence of our work in bridging the gap. — Stephen Del Rosso

Christopher R. Hill, dean of Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, speaks with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rigor Meets Relevance

The Corporation’s approach to bridging the gap reflects the belief that academic rigor is not incompatible with policy relevance. The International Peace and Security team challenged universities to prove they could deliver both. A request for proposals to the 22 American-based members of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) called for uniquely practical, on-the-ground, policy-focused programs, offering to award two-year grants of up to $1 million each for projects with a strong chance of success, especially from institutions willing to rethink tenure rules so that academics are free to pursue policy work, and to challenge convention and merge ideas across international and disciplinary lines.

Experts in the international relations field, chosen for their understanding of the policymaking process in Washington, D.C., as well as awareness of the administrative challenges of universities, reviewed 17 submissions from APSIA members. The following five were chosen: Columbia University, Syracuse University, Tufts University, the University of Denver, and the University of Washington. Their proposals include fresh ideas such as rapid response funds to make academics available on short notice to join counterparts at the State Department as soon as an international crisis breaks, and incorporating non-traditional outlets for research, from new forms of online publishing and social media to documentary videos and TED-style talks.

Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) will take on a significant and growing national security challenge— cyber espionage. Companies, especially in financial services and critical infrastructures, find themselves under frequent attack, required to keep a constant eye on the vulnerabilities of their systems. Predictably, corporations look to government for protection from escalating cyber crimes and for solutions to their technologically and legally complex problems. SIPA will address this escalating demand by establishing a global hub for research and consultation on cyber policy.

The challenge is significant for policymakers in the U.S. and abroad, who are keenly aware of the demands of cyber policy and governance, but unable to formulate effective policy frameworks that respond to these threats, Del Rosso says. Protocols for cooperation between firms and governments are lacking, as is constructive international engagement on information issues. Meanwhile, problems affecting privacy and data, not to mention overall governance of the Internet, are metastasizing.

Hearkening back to the Cold War days, when scholars and practitioners forged new theories and created an expert community to cope with the nuclear age, the challenges of cybersecurity and Internet governance raise the same magnitude of global challenges and require a comparable academic and institutional response, plus major bridging efforts among all the players. Columbia’s SIPA will respond by identifying priority areas for policy-relevant research within the field of cyberpolicy and governance and launching a series of working groups to carry out extensive cutting-edge research.

While the digital world poses one set of risks, conflicts in the real world continue to erupt. And although war is decreasing globally, the ability of governments to fully manage conflicts has leveled off. As a consequence, nonstate actors must support states and fill voids left by an absence of state capacity, even attempting to stop armed conflict before it starts. These non-state actors—local civilians as well as local and transnational businesses and nongovernmental organizations—play an increasingly important role in security outcomes in the world’s most intractable trouble spots. And yet they have not attracted much scholarly notice.

This lack of attention has in turn limited policymakers’ understanding of the influence such non-state actors can have. The University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies will employ research and policy engagement on the peace building functions of these organizations and individuals in an effort to shine a light on their role in reducing violence and hastening its end.

“Our collective attention is often biased toward headline-grabbing events of violence and conflict,” said Christopher R. Hill, dean of the Josef Korbel School and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “Our faculty is seeking to correct this bias by broadening the understanding of alternatives to violence and the effects that nonviolent actors can have on worldwide security.”

Dealing with the fallout of conflict is also the focus of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the country’s oldest graduate school of international affairs. Its aim is to bridge the gap by working toward effective outcomes for one specific public policy challenge—the building (or rebuilding) of institutions in conflict-prone states that would be considered legitimate in the eyes of their citizens. Strengthening institutions in fragile states is also a longstanding interest of the Corporation’s International Peace and Security Program, particularly through its peace building work.

According to The Fletcher School’s dean, James Stavridis, who served previously as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, this area of research has widespread potential, and “might help us to understand better emerging groups that could pose a threat to stability and security—like the next ISIS. Further, the grant will help support the mechanisms that move those ideas from the academy into the real world where policy impacts the globe.” 

James Stavridis, dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe

Cultivating the Field

Over the years, advanced training in international affairs has evolved into two distinct tracks: professional master’s degree programs focused on professional skills training for future practitioners, and Ph.D. programs meant for next generation university academics. Typically, students must choose either to follow a professional degree program and give up on a university career, or opt for a Ph.D. and forego a future in public service or policy. These are two separate but still complementary and mutually dependent cultures, according to Del Rosso, and the needlessly bifurcated approach is really a market failure that negatively impacts policymaking and the academy.

While Ph.D. programs insulate students from real world policymaking, professional master’s programs don’t allow sufficient time to acquire in-depth knowledge. Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs intends to bridge the academic–policy divide by focusing on the human-capital dimension of this challenge through creation of a multi-institutional consortium and network of policy-oriented scholars. One of only a few institutions that combine both types of programs within the same institutional framework, its proposed solution will result in a cohort of scholars and practitioners that understand the problems and perspectives of both worlds and can pursue successful careers in either one.

Another significant change in the field of international affairs is its expansion beyond the domain of specialized government agencies. Today’s good ideas can and do come from myriad sources: foundations, NGOs, private companies, and even celebrities may play a significant role in helping to shape and implement policies. In light of this trend, the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies will establish a policy institute targeting issues in international development, security, and business that draws on the wealth of expertise throughout its diverse community.

Located in downtown Seattle, the Jackson School is well positioned for multi-stakeholder activity. The institute will serve as a hub for faculty and students to collaborate with policymakers and representatives of business and civil society in four thematic areas: Asian Governance in the Regional and Global Order, the Arctic and International Relations, Religion and Human Security, and International Relations—Outer Space and Cyberspace.


Can bridging the gap become a common cause?

For decades, Carnegie Corporation’s International Peace and Security Program has been recognized as a key player in building bridges between the worlds of policy and academia. These new ventures promise to bring scholars and policymakers closer together by summoning fresh ideas to solve urgent real-world problems— from cyber espionage to the future of natural resources in the Arctic—in unexplored or underutilized ways. It’s also well known that the Corporation values partnerships. Ideally, the pioneering work emerging from these selected institutions will attract more foundations and other funders to support growing efforts to bridge the gap. The shared goal would be to build momentum for projects resulting in theory-driven, policy-relevant research and effective communication, positively impacting America’s interests and promoting peace and security worldwide.