Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Scattered thoughts on policy, politics, and political science

I've been intermittently following the discussions around Joseph Nye's "Scholars on the Sidelines," in the blogosphere and elsewhere. (See Dan's post here and his links back to his previous three, and the sundry other commentary to which he links; and Henry Farrell.)

President Obama has appointed some distinguished academic economists and lawyers to his administration, but few high-ranking political scientists have been named. In fact, the editors of a recent poll of more than 2,700 international relations experts declared that "the walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high."

While important American scholars such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski took high-level foreign policy positions in the past, that path has tended to be a one-way street. Not many top-ranked scholars of international relations are going into government, and even fewer return to contribute to academic theory. The 2008 Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) poll, by the Institute for Theory and Practice in International Relations, showed that of the 25 scholars rated as producing the most interesting scholarship during the past five years, only three had ever held policy positions (two in the U.S. government and one in the United Nations).

I'm feeling cranky and Weberian about all this. Politics and science are different vocations. I don't think my crankiness is actually directed at Nye, but rather at how easy it is for us to draw the wrong lessons from his remarks.

I note that Nye's initial concern was that political scientists aren't doing public service-- we're not doing policymaking work in government. (Nye himself has of course done so, repeatedly and with distinction.) And in particular, the leaders in the field aren't doing so. And there's certainly something to this. Many leading economists end up serving for some period of time on the Council of Economic Advisors or in Treasury. Those in highest ranks of legal academia have a natural route to public service that leads to the bench. Things seem oddly different in political science.

I've heard this complaint before. A prominent IR scholar gave an address in which he eulogized the era in which IR scholars of a certain stature could expect that they'd serve as NSA or in a similar position at some point, and there was an expected rotation of faculty in and out of Harvard Gov as the party in power changed.

But, unlike in Nye's op-ed, the subtext-that-barely-counted-as-sub was "Why haven't politicians come to me on bended knee seeking out my wisdom?" And now we get toward to my point.

Nye is calling for academics of a high level of scholarly accomplishment to be willing to serve-- notice the word. They'll have to take a pay cut, move to Washington for a certain number of years, give up the lecture circuit, and do someone else's bidding. They'll give advice and can shape policy; but even someone as high-ranking as a cabinet official works for someone else. (Just ask Secretary Clinton.) For academics of the relevant rank and stature, this will be a sacrifice. If serving as an Assistant Undersecretary counts as a promotion from your day job, then you may not be the kind of scholar Nye has in mind.

One thing Nye is not doing is making the traditional ritualistic call for greater public intellectualism. He's not asking us to write more op-eds or more pop-academic books that get six-figure advances, or to give more lectures on the lecture circuit, or to blog more. But within political science, the divide between those who do a lot of that kind of thing and those who don't is salient and sometimes deeply felt, so I think Nye's call for public service easily gets mixed up with that divide. In his call for sacrifice and service, he gives inadvertent comfort and solace to those who are well-paid to stand on their professorial soapbox and tell the world what it should do.

Yes, I'm perfectly well aware that I'm saying this on my blog where I often offer political opinions. But I consider this blog a kind of self-indulgence, not a kind of service, and I'm asking for those to be kept distinct.

Another thing he's not doing is calling for all of academia to look like the traditional dream of the activist-scholar determined to Make A Difference for one's preferred pre-research political cause. If economics is the model being looked toward, then notice what the model actually looks like. Christina Romer, Laura Tyson, and their peers were researchers first. They were researchers on matters of public importance, and they were certainly engaged in speaking research to power when the opportunity arose. But they were doing peer-reviewed research at the highest levels. The perpetual temptation to substitute activism for scholarship, or to conflate the two, isn't what Nye is indulging. But inevitably that's what we hear.

Nye might be right that there is a problem of top scholars not engaging in public service. But there is also a (perpetual, structural) problem of academics leveraging their real expertise into general-purpose pontification, in the classroom as well as in public. And I worry that Nye's call to fix the first problem tempts us to worsen the second, in the following way:

Nye claims that one reason for the disconnect between political science and public service is that the former has become too abstract, too formal and theoretical, too disconnected from scholarship about matters of public policy. And he calls for political science to re-valorize such scholarship.

The solutions must come via a reappraisal within the academy itself. Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promoting young scholars. Journals could place greater weight on relevance in evaluating submissions. Studies of specific regions deserve more attention. Universities could facilitate interest in the world by giving junior faculty members greater incentives to participate in it. That should include greater toleration of unpopular policy positions.

Well, maybe. I'll try to write a follow-up post on some of the substantive questions about research methods and agendas. But one thing that occurs to me is that Nye neglects the possible role of institutions like the one of which he's a former Dean. Public policy schools, well-funded by tuition-paying MPP/MPA students, have served to drain a steady share of the policy-relevant political scientists out of political science departments. And it's within departments, not professional schools, that the intellectual course of the discipline is ordinarily shaped, if only because that's where Ph.D. students who will be the next generation of professors are trained. (Yes, joint appointments etc. But at the margin, the most policy-relevant political scientists have a higher-paying gig across the street training MPP students. Even if they all act as half-members of political science departments, that still means they've got half the investment, half the influence of those without such policy-relevant research.) There are mitigating effects; the resources public policy schools bring to campus mean there are more faculty positions to go around for policy-relevant researchers. But I do suspect there's some effect here. And notice that it's compatible with the puzzle to be explained: what's different about political science? Economists simply don't have a comparable salary difference between econ faculty posts and public policy faculty posts. Law professors are situated in professional schools all along. Public policy schools do something to political science as a discipline that they don't do to the others.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I think you nailed it with your point about public policy schools and institutes. The question is "How many people in government service have PhDs or other advanced degrees?" Lots, obviously. Asking specifically political science professors to "serve" a la economists, law professors, etc. is simply a category mistake.