Is the academic study of political science increasingly irrelevant to actual policymaking? This was the question posted at a lively debate held by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs this past May.
Stephen Del Rosso, director of the International Peace and Security program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, moderated the event, called “A Debate: Political Science is Lapsing into Irrelevance.”
Del Rosso, who manages a Corporation initiative on bringing the academic and policy worlds closer together, opened the debate by recalling Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffmann’s words that American foundations should serve as "the dumbwaiters between the academic salons and the kitchens of power."
Arguing ‘no’ on the motion that political science has become less relevant to policy in recent years was Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University who edits the popular Monkey Cage blog housed at The Washington Post. Farrell opened his line of argument by saying, “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.”
His sparring partner was Michael Desch, professor of political science at Notre Dame and author of the boldly titled The Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security, who argued in support for the motion. To Desch, there is a real and problematic challenge deterring a regular flow of useful ideas from academic salons to the kitchens of power.” Pointing to increasing departmental demands at universities that PhD students study methodology at the expense of subject matter courses, Desch opined that today’s “preferred tools of modern political science are not useful to all the important questions that policymakers care about.” He went on to describe a natural tension between policy relevance and academic rigor, one that more often than not sees relevance losing out. The result? Rigorous but ultimately irrelevant academic outputs — of little help to active policymakers.
Desch also pointed out that recent efforts to explicitly include political scientists in policymaking arenas have failed to fix the problem. For example, the Minerva Research Initiative was launched by the Defense Department in 2008, specifically to inject university-led, unclassified social science research into national security policy. The goal was to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of global strategic importance to the U.S. But “Minerva did not produce what [Defense Secretary] Gates and his colleagues were looking for,” said Desch, “and in fact [the National Science Foundation] has been replaced by the [think tank] U.S. Institute of Peace, which I think speaks volumes in terms of what's going on.”
Farrell, who has a prime vantage point as the editor of the Monkey Cage blog, pushed back on this argument, noting that the platform was created to tackle this very problem. Just in the last 18 months alone, the blog has published the work of over 3,500 political scientists, pairing academic inquiry with the cachet and distribution of its media partner, the Washington Post.
“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,” says Farrell. He relayed an amusing anecdote in which former national security advisor Tom Donilon would often task special assistant Michael McFaul with digging up social science insights on national security challenges. “One day,” says Farrell, “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.’"