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Academics, Policy Makers, Blogs, and the Trouble with Op-Eds

- September 5, 2013

The most prolific way academics seek the attention of the public and policy makers is by writing op-eds in national newspapers. Does this type of writing give policy makers or the public what they need from academics? I am not so sure and an interesting article about the relationship between academics and policy makers in the Chronicle of Higher Education supports this view (at least in my mind).

An important starting point, made by James Goldgeier, is that policy makers simply don’t have the time to delve deeply into scholarly journals. Hence the need for academics to translate their findings into a more easily digestible format. Op-eds in prestigious outlets are both visible and short so they serve that purpose well. But what do policymakers actually want to hear from academics? According to the Chronicle, a forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly authored by Paul Avey and Michael Desch (more on that article in the near future) concludes that:

Surveying national-security “decision makers,” the authors found that research was useful largely as “intellectual background,” and that scholars could be most valuable as “informal advisers.”

Stephen D. Krasner, a former director of policy planning at the State department and professor at Stanford University argues that:

Scholars can do two things well, he says: Provide empirical evidence about what has happened, and offer a conceptual framework through which to understand it.

In other words, scholars should not necessarily tell policy makers what to do but inform them what we can learn from the past and how to think about issues. This is what we try to do here at the Monkey Cage when we discuss what the experience of past military interventions may teach us about Syria or what Dan Drezner does when he evaluates a potential intervention from the perspective of international relations theory.

Can you really do this in an op-ed? Ultimately, the New York Times wants to know whether you think the U.S. should bomb Syria. They are somewhat interested in evidence or rationales but at the end of the day they do not like to see a nuanced or (worse) indeterminate conclusion. Just to illustrate: Ian Hurd published a New York Times op-ed headlined: Bomb Syria Even If It Is Illegal. The next day he went on Opinio Juris to clarify that he did not intend to argue that the U.S. should bomb Syria. Indeed, a legal analysis cannot provide a definitive answer to the question whether the U.S. should or should not engage in military action.

I don’t know where the headline came from in this case. Papers usually edit op-eds heavily and choose their own headlines. But authors can also appeal to editorial boards by providing clear and provocative conclusions. (Knowing Ian, in this case I suspect the former rather than the latter). Either way, op-eds are a problematic outlet if academics are primarily valuable for contributing empirical evidence and conceptual foundations, which often get lost in the desire for a catchy punchline. Some op-eds are more successful than others in preserving nuance but the pressure to deliver something catchy is always there.

My point is more than a bit self-serving: one of the real virtues of academic blogs is that they make academics less reliant on the op-ed as a way to publicize their work. Our blogs may produce pieces that yield unsatisfactory conclusions for some. They sure don’t have the prestige or visibility of a New York Times op-ed. That is a serious disadvantage and I don’t think blogs will replace op-eds anytime soon. Some blog posts, including this one, look very much like op-eds. More often than not, though, I think academics are better off resisting the temptation to try to make their public writing look like that of others who occupy the already amply populated class of pundits.  The promise of the academic blog is that it allows academics to stick to what they do best while making their research findings more accessible to the public and policy makers.