What do American policymakers want from academics?

Paul Avey and Michael Desch had an interesting post on this question at the Monkey Cage a few weeks ago.  While the authors focused on American policymakers, I suspect that these findings are generalizable to policymakers outside of the US, and, on a slightly different set of topics, to managers at development NGOs as well.   The graph of their findings is striking (click to enlarge):


The categories with a clear preponderance of “very” or “somewhat” useful results are area studies, case studies and policy analysis.  Respondents appeared more divided over quantitative and theoretical analysis and operations research, but still generally favorable.  The only category to receive majority unfavorable responses was formal modeling.

Note that the favorability of these approaches increases linearly with the amount of context and detail they tend to provide.  Formal modeling is based on the idea that a set of simplified yet powerful assumptions about human nature can yield predictions about behavior which would apply to any actor in the same situation, regardless of context.  This is about as far as it gets from the types of qualitative, richly detailed works which often show up in area studies or policy analysis.

The point I took away  was not that formal modeling is useless, but that research which provides detailed, contextualized descriptions of the problem at hand is more likely to be accessible to policymakers.  Barbara Walter’s book on the use of third parties to enforce civil war settlements is a great example of a work which uses formal modeling to derive its conclusions, but then highlights their policy relevance with a series of case studies.  It’s clearly not the case that policy-oriented research should sacrifice rigor, but rather that even the most rigorous research isn’t worth much if practitioners can’t understand it.

That said, even research which does not immediately appear to have policy implications can turn out to be useful in the long run.  Walter’s work was based on research like Bob Powell’s article on war as a commitment problem, which is a heavily mathematical study of “the inefficiency puzzle in the context of complete-information games” (p. 195).  Sounds about as far removed as possible from the messy real world, no?  And yet, while the policy implications of Powell’s article may not have been clear to practitioners, later researchers were able to build on it to make well-informed policy recommendations.  It’s the political science version of developing an incredible adhesive from biomechanical studies of gecko feet.

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