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University academics: Can they take research to policy? Do they want to?

The “twittersphere” has been abuzz, with claims of anti-intellectualism and a few admissions of fault since Nicholas Kristof’s philippic appeared.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.

Independently of Kristof, I have been working on a piece on this subject that includes language as below:

The central teaching mission of conventional universities (especially pronounced in developing countries) and the perhaps inevitable emphasis placed on abstract knowledge (or pure research) makes faculty members less than perfect as generators and disseminators of policy-relevant knowledge. Even in well-endowed developed-country universities, this has led to the creation of in-house policy-oriented units that engage in policy-relevant research and/or serve as information brokers. Additional problems afflict developing-country universities, making their faculty even less productive with regard to policy-relevant research.

. . . . . .
Even in well-resourced universities in developed countries, not all faculty members take research to policy. The chances of good research findings being communicated in ways that will effectively inform policy processes by university-based scholars are much less in developing Asia. Given the internal red-tape and related dysfunctions of universities, it is unlikely that creation of specialized information-broker units such as that found at the London School of Economics and Political Science will provide a solution.

Good timing. Hopefully this will advance the discussion.


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