The Fundamental Problem of Policy Relevance

If scholars want to influence politicians, they need to offer solutions that align with the interests of those politicians, argues Steve Saideman.
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December 11, 2013
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One of the great consistencies in the dialogue among scholars and between scholars and the rest of the world is the concern that scholars are not policy relevant.  Some argue that academics do not try or care about policy relevance as they face incentives to publish highly theoretical work.  Others argue that academics are simply incapable of it due to years of training that cause them to lose their ability to communicate with non-academics.  The jargon, the math, the focus on methods all get in the way of conveying their conclusions to the public sphere.

While there might be some kernels of truth in all of that, the real challenge for academics who want to be policy relevant is figuring out how to make the solutions they advocate appear to be in the interests of the politicians they are trying to reach.  That is, they need to convince the politician that which is best for the city, province, country, or world also happens to be in the interest of the politician.  Of course, this sounds very cynical, but the basic reality is that most politicians will not sacrifice their careers pursuing policies that are good for country, especially when the positive effects are in the long run. The famous line from Keynes that in the long run we are all dead is particularly true for politicians who must focus on the next election and not much further than that.

The trick, then, is to figure out the aspects of one’s preferred policy recommendation that would benefit the politician or fit with the politician’s stance.  The example that comes to mind today is one far out of my expertise – the Arctic and the submission of claims to international organizations.  To summarize the state of play, each country is supposed to submit its science-based bids on how much of the territory in the arctic “belongs” to it.  The legitimacy of the claims will be based in large part on geography – is the land claimed part of the extended continental shelf.  Apparently, the science-based claims that Canada was going to put forth were insufficient for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, so Canada has submitted a claim that essentially says that the science behind it will be forthcoming:


Mr. Harper asked Canadian bureaucrats to go back to the drawing board and craft a more expansive claim for ocean-floor resources in the polar region after the proposed submission they showed him failed to include the geographic North Pole.


The experts did not give Harper what he wanted to hear.  So, they face two choices.  They could re-jig the maps to allow Canada to make a very expansive claim, which would undercut the legitimacy of all of Canada’s claims since they will be seen as driven not by science, not by the geography, but by the demands of the prime minister.  Or the experts could develop arguments that show that overly expansive claims might just undermine Canadian interests in very specific ways. 

This is where the fundamental problem in policy relevance kicks in.  How can those studying Arctic geography articulate recommendations that keep true to the science while being acceptable to the politicians of the day?  Perhaps some social science would be handy here to show whether making expansive claims actually has any positive or negative effects.  Alas, that is not my area of expertise, but I am sure that the people trying to draw good maps for Canada’s claims could use such information.  Would it make a difference?  Would it break through the confirmation bias that affects most politicians and certainly this current set in Ottawa?  Probably not. 

But the challenge is still an important one: how to take one’s research-based findings and find ways to make them politically appealing.  Being right is not good enough, especially when the policies that are advocated involve short-term costs and long-term benefits.  Being right and being appealing is the winning combination.  Figuring out how to do that is tricky.  If anyone unlocks that mystery, let me know.