Security Studies Program Seminar

If, When, and How Social Science Can Contribute to
National Security Policy

Michael Desch
Chair, Department of Political Science
University of Notre Dame

March 17, 2010

The state of the relationship between intellectuals and policymakers is a perennial concern that goes back to early thinkers such as Plato and Machiavelli.  Max Weber and John Dewey set the stage for this debate in its modern iteration.  There has been a resurgence of interest in this topic recently in Washington, especially in the realm of defense, and researchers from elite universities have populated many important administration jobs in the new administration. 

There’s a real sense that there’s a growing disconnect between the Ivory Tower and the Beltway today and we ought to be doing something about it.  The Tobin Project is also playing an important role in trying to reconnect scholars and policy-makers, as is Bruce Jentleson’s new program for bridging this gap at Duke. 

Rebuilding these bridges will be a challenge because of obstacles in three areas: changes in the academy in what we do and how we do it, changes in Washington regarding the sources of expertise policymakers tap, and changes in public opinion regarding the role of the academy in addressing pressing issues of national policy.

The structure of my talk will be as follows: I will provide a brief overview of the history of academic influence upon national security policy during its so-called “Golden Age.  Next, I will explore the impact of Vietnam in producing a rift between the Beltway and the Ivory Tower.  I then outline the research challenges with which I am wrestling for my book.  I conclude by explaining why I think this project of reconnecting scholars and policymakers matters, from both practical and moral standpoints.

When we think about collaboration between academics and policymakers in national security, the total mobilization of the American academy to wage the Second World War most often comes to mind.  Ruth Benedict, Edward, and Morris Janowitz were just the tip of the iceberg.  Many scholars continued this cooperation in the post-war era, including Albert Wohlstetter, William Kaufman, and Bernard Brodie.  Then, the nadir of the Golden Age was the Kennedy Administration, full of the individuals whom author David Halberstam notably described as “the best and brightest”.

Unfortunately, a number of changes have taken place in the academy in recent years, leading to a disconnect from the debates about day-to-day politics.  Many argue that Vietnam drove the academy to the left, and this explains most of the growing gap between scholars and defense policymakers. 

Certainly, the academy is politically left of center, but in terms of explaining the withdrawal of academic political scientists from practical politics, I am more convinced by Steve Van Evera’s argument about academia’s growing adherence to the “cult of the irrelevant”.  By this he means that the research programs pursued by scholars during this period increasingly came to be concerned by internal concerns of methodology and theory, at the expense of doing relevant work.  What explains this development?

I propose using theories of “cult of the offensive,” pioneered by folks such as Stephen Van Evera, Barry Posen, and Jack Snyder, to explain this phenomena.  Why not use the same logic to think about the “cult of the irrelevant” among political scientists?  Think about the origins of the modern American research university, which, ironically, has not changed in structure since its emergence in the early 20th and late 19th century: other than the hard sciences, disciplinary barriers remain strikingly rigid and the approaches of the hard sciences dominate how we think about the social sciences.  As a result, we see greater specialization and narrowing of scholars’ areas of expertise, which, in turn, make their work less relevant to policy.

Changes have also taken place inside the beltway.  The national security bureaucracy has grown considerably in size, in part as a result of internalizing the research and analysis function previously provided by academia.  Along with that, there has been an explosion of national security-related think tanks.  So, increasingly, if policymakers want advice, they now get it internally or from think tanks or for-profit consulting companies.

Finally, the public’s image of American academics has declined substantially as a result.  The net result of these three trends is the growing gap between scholars and policymakers, particularly in the national security realm.

What are the research challenges I feel I need to address?  First, I need to fit this argument into the extant literatures.  The historical literature on this topic is deeply contradictory.  Fred Kaplan, in Wizards of Armageddon, gives academics a much more salient role in national security policy during the golden age, and the historian, Bruce Kuklick, in Blind Oracles, says that Kaplan got it completely wrong.  So part of the problem is that the history needs to be clarified. 

Second, I think I need to develop better measures of some of the key variables and figure out how they fit together.  Consequently, my contribution would be clarifying the history, develop a theory by which we identify the conditions under which social science affects policy, and offering some practical suggestions for revitalizing the marketplace of ideas in the United States.

Let me address two important potential critiques of my argument.  First, some might agree with an academic veteran of the OSS who lamented that “government uses expertise like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than for guidance.”  Second, one could argue that the current situation is acceptable, because those academics who want to influence policy can find ways to do it. 

However, I do not think that the current situation is optimal.  Academia has unique contributions to make to policy debates which are being lost.  First, the institution of tenure allows scholars to delve into really controversial issues.  Second, the process of peer review fosters an efficient marketplace of ideas.  Finally, academics can develop deep expertise, since we have the luxury of becoming real experts to critical issues in a way that policymakers do not.  I do not deny that academia suffers from its own biases and pathologies; rather, I argue that because they are different from those of government bureaucrats, academics can contribute unique insights to national policy debates.

Beyond these practical considerations, I believe that there are important moral considerations at stake. I think the idea articulated by Max Weber that science and policy are two separate realms that ought to be kept separate is not helpful.  Rather, I believe that scholars have an obligation to their societies to contribute their unique expertise to the pressing problems they face.  Because of these changes in academia, the policy world, and the rest of American society, reconnecting scholars will be a harder task than many of us realize.


Question & Answer Session:


Q: What strikes me is the faddish nature of the articles published in particular fields such as political violence.  Thus, the pressure to be on the cutting edge of fads hits scholars really hard on the road to tenure.  These incentives are so deeply embedded in the American academy that I cannot see how it can be changed.

A: Professional standards are increasingly set internally.  I think it’s also inextricably linked with the evolution of science in the Kuhnian paradigm, where you make progress by cutting up phenomena into smaller and smaller pieces.

However, the beginning of wisdom is recognizing that there is a problem.  There also need to be external pressures by deans and provosts, as well as foundations, to make sure that internal incentives don’t become too counterproductive.

Q: First, what counts as an effect of social science for you?  And, second, what is a good effect, and what is a bad effect?  Third, Stephen Krasner has an interesting perspective on this issue as well.  And, finally, what are the other disciplines doing?

A: I think it really comes down to an exercise in process tracing.  Obviously, the nature of the effect is a major concern.  Certainly, there have been cases of bad academic effects on policy.

Economics, on the other hand, has become both methodologically complex and very influential in many areas of policymaking.  Anthropologists, on the other hand, are running away from a golden opportunity to influence policy today.

Q: Social science does have an impact in many areas outside of security studies.  James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory has had a huge impact on crime fighting in the United States, for example.  Alain Enthoven was also hugely impactful on health policy after his role in developing systems theory.  The RAND Corporation changed enormously after reaction to the Pentagon Papers – that’s an important data point to consider as well.

A: There was a veritable explosion of social science coming out of RAND or DoD that influenced the US government.  I think if I try to write the story of social science writ large on government policy, I think it will be beyond my capacities.

Q: I would refer you to the discussion on the Economist’s website about which council of economic advisors was most academic.  Further, the doctoral education system disincentivizes policy-related research.  Also, at RAND and other areas, people make much more money, quality-of-life benefits such as spousal placement, and the option to work on policy issues. 

A: I agree.  Supposedly liberal universities are very far behind RAND on spousal placement issues.  Also, top-tier positions for grad students are disappearing.  I think MIT does a better job than most schools at training its graduate students to be versatile enough to survive not just in the academic job market but also in the policy-advising sphere.

(A series of questions taken in one batch)

Q: The Russian studies field grew large due to government grants, but area studies are disparaged in political science today.

Q: Why should we expect public opinion to impact the role of social science in policymaking?

Q: How do schools of public policy fit into your models?

Q: How would you deal with the distinction between absence of evidence versus evidence of absence?  How do we know there isn’t more subtle influence on policymakers from academics that we cannot immediately see?

Q: You might want to engage with Philip Tetlock’s work on expert political judgment, which argues that we may encourage the wrong sort of thinking in academia for providing good policy advice.

Q: Are America’s rivals better at feeding their academics into the policy process than we are?

Q: Within political science, where is this more or less pronounced?  What are some clear examples of good or bad work in this regard?

A: I think that, at the end of the book, if I cannot make specific analytical judgments, I will have wasted my time.  I know what I think now, but I am relatively early in the research process.

The question about how we compare with other countries is an excellent one.  Many other countries would say that the U.S. is the ideal model of this, but I don’t think of this as a comparative thing.  I don’t think there is a “tweed jacket gap” between us and other countries.  But I do think we would do better if we thought more systematically about this issue.

The question about evidentiary issues is a central one.  I think what that’s really going to come down to is distinguishing between direct and indirect efforts at influence.  So, for example, Peter Feaver’s career path and arguments about public opinion are very direct.  But, there is another possibility – to say that Steve Van Evera, without ever leaving leafy Cambridge, MA, may have shaped the intellectual milieu.

In policy schools, students don’t care about theory if it cannot be tied to their immediate job prospects.  Also, they are interdisciplinary.  But they’re not producing cutting edge knowledge.  That is why I think making academic social science departments more relevant is imperative.

Regarding public opinion, it’s a funny question to ask, since the public has some say in democracies about how government makes policy.  Ultimately, policy is made as part of public debates.

I agree, I have to engage with Tetlock.

Area studies were the main area of government engagement with the academy after WWII.  It is the field in political science that has taken the biggest hits in recent years in the context of our field’s professionalization.  If you accept that area studies knowledge is necessary for advising policymakers, we need to think about this issue more carefully.


Rapporteur: David Weinberg

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2010