Engaging the Next Generation of Policy-Thinkers

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Each year, the Bridging the Gap Project at American University brings doctoral students from the country’s top political science and international relations schools together to interact, discuss global policy, and exercise their analytical abilities. This year’s conference, which took place March 6-8, brought 23 doctoral students to the nation’s capital for three days of workshops and interactive, scenario exercises.

“The goal of New Era Foreign Policy is to help young scholars develop innovative research ideas in the hope of promoting substantive, policy-relevant research programs,” said the program’s director James Goldgeier.  “The conference also provides an opportunity for participants to build networks with other students and Bridging the Gap alumni who are committed to using their research and expertise to inform policy and enrich public debates.”

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The Bridging the Gap Project aims to engage next generation policy thinkers in conversation, leading to the development of new and innovative ideas related to U.S. foreign policy. To this end, a large part of the conference entails a series of plausible, scenario-based exercises.  Students at the most recent conference were immediately engaged by the experiential nature of this type of learning, with one student describing it as “political-science nerd heaven.”

“Participants are encouraged and enabled to bring together imagination and intellect—a combination that sows fertile ground for new ideas,” said Naazneen H. Barma  of the Naval Postgraduate School. “The doctoral students who participate find that this experience allows them to think more creatively and freely than in a traditional academic context. At the same time, we also emphasize how the students can cultivate and explore these new ideas with their rigorous academic training and toolkits.”

At the outset of the exercise, participants received their scenarios and quickly began evaluating key policy elements, identifying specific issues facing each country, and analyzing how U.S. foreign policy might take shape. The second part of the role-play introduced a “shock” that required the students to re-evaluate their previous ideas, consider how this shock might impact the scenario world, change U.S. foreign policy, and create new, unforeseen issues.

After a full day of debate, the larger group reconvened to discuss what they had gleaned from the exercise, and how they might use this new information to hone in on research that might be needed on issues of U.S. foreign policy and global dynamics.  By the time the day ended, participants had voiced multiple ideas and proposals for new avenues of research.

As the conference came to a close, big ideas and hypotheticals gave way to a more targeted discussion on the best ways for today’s PhD students to conduct and share policy-relevant research. Ryan Evans of the international affairs blog War on the Rocks, and Anya Schmemann of the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed ways in which students could use op-eds or websites like The Monkey Cage to reach a more policy-oriented audience. Others answered questions about fundraising and led a broader discussion on how to access both public and private funding opportunities. The conference culminated in discussions between participants and leaders about how to take an idea and turn it into actionable research and communications that could influence policy. 

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The New Era Foreign Policy conferences, as part of the Bridging the Gap initiative, have had a big impact on participants and alumni alike, providing them with a number of other opportunities. Recently launched summer fellowships go toward supporting PhD students and junior faculty pursuing research aimed at the policymaking community. In addition to their work with students, the Bridging the Gap Project conducts a similar summer institute aimed at university professors and post-docs, in addition to the New Era International workshop for top academic, governmental, and business leaders.

“The whole endeavor is undergirded by the fact that academics can get double mileage out of the work we do,” said Rachel Whitlark, of the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We focus on tools that can help academics take one project and convert it to multiple published pieces—both in scholarly and policy outlets. We wholeheartedly believe that the bridging the gap experience works best in conjunction with the norms and methods of traditional academic political science, and so we wanted to make that case in a scholarly outlet.”