Our New Three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Readability

Article by Stephen J. Del Rosso in Governance: “…Because of the dizzying complexity of the contemporary world, the quest for a direct relationship between academic scholarship and its policy utility is both quixotic and unnecessary. The 2013 U.S. Senate’s vote to prohibit funding for political science projects through the National Science Foundation, except for those certified “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” revealed a fundamental misreading of the nonlinear path between idea and policy. Rather than providing a clear blueprint for addressing emergent or long-standing challenges, a more feasible role for academic scholarship is what political scientist Roland Paris describes as helping to “order the world in which officials operate.” Scholarly works can “influence practitioners’ understandings of what is possible or desirable in a particular policy field or set of circumstances,” he believes, by “creating operational frameworks for … identifying options and implementing policies.”

It is sometimes claimed that think tanks should play the main role in conveying scholarly insights to policymakers. But, however they may have mastered the sound bite, the putative role of think tanks as effective transmission belts for policy-relevant ideas is limited by their lack of academic rigor and systematic peer review. There is also a tendency, particularly among some “Inside the Beltway” experts, to trim their sails to the prevailing political winds and engage in self-censorship to keep employment options open in current or future presidential administrations. Scholarship’s comparative advantage in the marketplace of ideas is also evident in terms of its anticipatory function—the ability to loosen the intellectual bolts for promising policies not quite ready for implementation. A classic example is Swedish Nobel laureate Gunner Myrdal’s 1944 study of race relations, The American Dilemma, which was largely ignored and even disavowed by its sponsors for over a decade until it proved essential to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Moreover, it should also be noted, rather than providing a detailed game plan for addressing the problem of race in the country, Myrdal’s work was a quintessential example of the power of scholarship to frame critically important issues.

To bridge the scholarship–policy gap, academics must balance rigor and relevance with a third “R”—readability. There is no shortage of important scholarly work that goes unnoticed or unread because of its presentation. Scholars interested in having influence beyond the ivory tower need to combine their pursuit of disciplinary requirements with efforts to make their work more intelligible and accessible to a broader audience. For example, new forms of dissemination, such as blogs and other social media innovations, provide policy-relevant scholars with ample opportunities to supplement more traditional academic outlets. The recent pushback from the editors of the International Studies Association’s journals to the announced prohibition on their blogging is one indication that the cracks in the old system are already appearing.

At the risk of oversimplification, there are three basic tribes populating the political science field. One tribe comprises those who “get it” when it comes to the importance of policy relevance, a second eschews such engagement with the real world in favor of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and a third is made up of anxious untenured assistant professors who seek to follow the path that will best provide them with secure employment. If war, as was famously said, is too important to be left to the generals, then the future of the political science field is too important to be left to the intellectual ostriches who bury their heads in self-referential esoterica. However, the first tribe needs to be supported, and the third tribe needs to be shown that there is professional value in engaging with the world, both to enlighten and, perhaps more importantly, to provoke—a sentiment the policy-relevant scholar and inveterate provocateur, Huntington, would surely have endorsed…(More)”