A Student Responds: Foreign Aid and the Theory-Practice Divide

by Zenobia Goodman
August 14th, 2020

Chapter Six of “Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations” on Foreign Aid immediately captured my attention as a student interested in pursuing a career in International Development after graduating from William & Mary. Understanding foreign aid has become increasingly important due to the complexity of the topic caused by differentiating agendas between researchers and practitioners/ policymakers.

According to Christina Schneider, the Chapter’s author, there is a greater demand for linkages between scholars and the policy community in the international development community compared to other international relations subfields. Using TRIP survey data of IR Scholars, the table below shows the high demand for more research that is policy-relevant and related to major world events.

Table6.1

So how do we fill this gap?

Chapter Six touches on the different approaches between scholars and researchers in the field of Foreign Aid. Here are the three main takeaways from Chapter Six.

    • Though both quantitative and qualitative methods are valued by IR scholars, overwhelming, more IR scholars employ qualitative analysis.  The TRIP survey found that scholars are more likely to employ qualitative research methods over quantitative research methods for policy purposes.  The table below shows the distribution of methodological approaches used by IR scholars.  But more information is needed to understand the type of methodological approaches practitioners are in need of.

 

    • Increasing linkages between scholars and practitioners is not impossible! Schneider notes that policy practitioners and IR scholars do use the same methodological approaches. Improving transparency can help “increase the usability of academic research for Policy purposes” (92). An example of this is AidData: AidData employs both academic and policy workers to collaborate surrounding the behavior of development projects in areas such as China and India. Transparency seems to foster a relationship of trust and ease between different fields.

Table6.2

  • Differences in incentive structures are still an obstacle. Academics research doesn’t always line up with current events that need immediate attention. In addition, developing a research plan and implementing it can take up to 2-5 years, when policymakers may need it in less than a year to address current problems.

Chapter Six of the book was very interesting and insightful for understanding the application of research in developing foreign aid policy. There has been a lot of progress in reducing the gap over the years, however, work still needs to be done. The Chapter opened up my perspective on the needs of the international development community, and how my education at William and Mary and my experience at TRIP can help better understand the relationship between the academic and the policy worlds. 

Check out my tweet thread summary of Chapter Six on Foreign Aid on our Twitter: @trip_irsurvey 

Preview or buy Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations from Georgetown University Press here: bit.ly/Bridging-G

Zenobia Goodman is a junior at the college, majoring in International Relations with a concentration in Global Education. She has worked at TRIP since the Spring semester of 2019. On campus, Zenobia is a member of the International Relations Club, a classroom assistant for a group of kindergartners, and a member of a social sorority. She is interested in the human rights violations and global development issues.

A Student Responds: Nuclear Strategy and the Theory-Practice Divide

by Maggie Manson

July 24, 2020

In their chapter in the new book edited by our TRIP Principal Investigators (Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael J. Tierney) and Daniel Maliniak, Paul C. Avey and Michael C. Desch aim to solve the question of why the discipline of international security, specifically nuclear strategy, has become less policy-relevant following the Cold War. They argue that a decline in policy-relevant academia, evidenced by the decline in the proportion of journal articles with policy prescriptions, can be attributed to modern research being presented in formats that are not easily accessible for policymakers to interpret and use.

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The authors find an increase in the proportion of WMD and Arms Control articles that employ quantitative analysis, rather than qualitative, which they argue is indicative of the lack of accessibility of recent nuclear research and the professionalization of IR as a field.

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While the results of this chapter are interesting, I have some further questions about the applicability of these findings to the reality of nuclear politics in the Trump era. Generally speaking, nuclear research doesn’t lend itself towards quantitative methods because there is a significant lack of case studies where nuclear weapons were employed offensively (there’s exactly one, the U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan near the end of WWII). While aspects of nuclear politics such as hedging, proliferation, and the nonproliferation regime can be understood through quantitative analysis of real-world events, the ultimate puzzle of what factors might lead to the use of nuclear weapons cannot be solved using quantitative methods.

While the argument of the chapter may have held up in previous post-Cold War years, I believe that there is a different reason for a lack of policy relevance in the era of the Trump Presidency. The authors argue that academic work doesn’t make its way into the policy process because of inaccessible methods, however, in the case of the Trump administration, it seems that his staff often purposefully ignores expert opinion. Trump has stated many times throughout his campaign and presidency that we as a country need to be more unpredictable in our actions on the world stage. Unpredictable actions cannot coexist with well-informed policy rooted in academic findings, especially in the realm of nuclear politics. So in the Trump era, it may not in fact be that research is not well understood by policymakers, but that it is altogether ignored.

According to Snap Poll XI, a majority of scholars find Trump’s strategy of unpredictability to be highly ineffective. So why does Trump insist upon this tactic, ignoring expert opinion?

TRIP_SP_2020_Jul_24

I believe that it is not because of the inaccessibility of academic work, but instead his lack of respect for expert opinion. Avey and Desch’s argument may correctly explain the theory-policy gap in the nuclear realm pre-Trump, but I think that there is a more important factor preventing the current administration from engaging with academic material: their lack of appreciation for experts altogether. This chapter and argument are extremely compelling, so I asked the authors how they think it holds up in the Trump era.

  1.   How do you think your argument holds up in the Trump Era?

We think that the argument holds up reasonably well. If professional incentives lead nuclear scholars to turn inward to only study narrow questions amenable to certain techniques or theoretical approaches, then much of what we as scholars produce won’t be particularly relevant. There’s a lot of important questions today – from arms control to nonproliferation, to nuclear force modernization and strategy – that scholars can contribute to. It is important to put the problem at the center of analysis and then use the best approach available to answer the question. Policy practitioners are smart and can understand sophisticated approaches. But if the question and approach are not relevant to their problem set they’ll be even less likely to engage with academics. It is also incumbent on us to identify factors that policy can influence and present findings in a clear and consistent manner.

Different administrations will vary in how much they use social science work and approach experts. At its most senior levels, the Trump administration may be particularly skeptical as you note. Scholarship that is relevant may struggle to have influence across multiple administrations. The important point for us is that if the work is not relevant then there is almost no chance that it has influence.

  1.   What are your thoughts on John Harvey’s policy response to your chapter?

We thank Dr. Harvey for taking the time to engage our argument. We agree with much of what he said, not least because he notes that our assessment is “on the mark.” His response, as he notes, reinforces and extends our points. For example, he tells the story of how Ted Postol and Sally Ride failed to achieve faculty status at Stanford. For Harvey, the problem was that “they were not doing the traditional business of  academia (i.e., abstract knowledge production advancing a narrow field of study); they were working on real-world problems.” He later adds that “it was not easy to convince young social scientists and regional specialists to devote a portion of their time to policy-relevant research when prospective [academic] employers looked down on it.” Harvey highlights how disciplinary boundaries and approaches can inhibit engaging practical issues. This gets to the heart of our concern about disciplinary incentives marginalizing policy-relevant scholarship. We hope that this is changing in our field today, but we see reasons for concern. We also agree with his emphasis on time: policymakers have little of it and it matters when you introduce an idea. Scholars must be attentive to both of these factors if they work to engage practitioners.

  1.   How does your argument fit into the limits of nuclear politics research?

There are several challenges to nuclear politics research. To highlight just two, you rightly raise the challenge of small numbers and there are major secrecy issues surrounding nuclear weapons strategy and programs. This highlights the importance of our argument. Professional incentives to only study questions that are amenable to certain techniques or access can prevent scholars from exploring key issues. This is not, and we want to emphasize this, an argument against careful research and method, or an appreciation of the limits of what we can claim based on the available evidence. Our point is that if the balance moves too far in one direction then important questions will go unasked. Scholars will conduct ever-narrower studies on issues that aren’t relevant or transferrable to policy problems.

  1. What was your experience like working with TRIP data?

We have been fortunate to have worked with TRIP on multiple projects. TRIP data is an invaluable tool for understanding broad trends in the discipline and the nature of the academic-policy gap. There is still a lot to be learned from what they have collected.  

Preview or buy Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations from Georgetown University Press here: bit.ly/Bridging-GUP

Maggie Manson is a junior at William & Mary, majoring in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies.  She began working at TRIP in September 2019. Her research interests include Border Disputes, Colonialism, Global Development, International Security, Middle Eastern Politics, Nuclear Politics, and Political Islam. On campus Maggie is Assistant Chair of Administration for the Undergraduate Honor Council, a research assistant for Professor Grewal’s Armed Responses to Mobilization Or Revolution (ARMOR) project, and Political Correspondent for the Flat Hat student newspaper.

A Student Responds: Interstate Conflict and the Theory-Practice Divide

by Mary Trimble

July 21, 2020

In their chapter, “Lost in Translation: Academics, Policymakers, and Research about Interstate Conflict,” Sarah Kreps and Jessica Weeks suggest that the gap between academics and practitioners in the area of interstate conflict isn’t so much a problem of demand as of supply. In other words, if academics were better at explaining their research to the policymaker, data from the 2011 TRIP survey of national security establishment shows that the policymaker would find it useful and relevant to their work.

Their data also show that where academic theories have saturated the practitioner world, like realism or “clash of civilizations” theory, they tend to be outdated or have fallen out of vogue in academia, which makes continuous sharing of scholarly research all the more important. This is an encouraging finding, because it is one which suggests an easy fix: scholars should write more op-eds for more mainstream publications, like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage.

While reading, it struck me that such a solution may present an opportunity during the Trump administration, for example in the Department of Defense, where there is currently significant turnover of officials in the politically-appointed upper echelons. This presents two possibilities as it relates to Kreps and Weeks’ research.

On the one hand, perennially new superiors might rely more heavily on well-informed, well-placed staffers and establishment folks, such as those in the survey sample in Avey and Desch 2014. Thus, where the national security establishment is engaging in scholarship, it may have an outsize effect in the context of the Trump administration; and if scholars wrote more well placed op-eds! What a utopia for the academia-policy pipeline.

On the other hand, with every new appointment, the work environment becomes more deeply polarized, as officials seen as disloyal are replaced with figures friendlier to the administration. One hallmark of the administration has been a disdain for expertise, and the tendency of politically appointed leadership to perform for an audience of one.  Would they be friendly to the scholarly argument, or simply to one that isn’t ideological?

In his response, Peter Feaver provides some potential answers. Theory is essential, but also often implicit: thus, a political official may never know a Foreign Policy article by an academic was the basis of their briefing, so the problem of hostility to the research is eliminated. However, Fever also notes that academic research tends to be more useful at providing context for a given scenario than concrete solutions. Theory can explain what actions states or individuals tend to take when confronted with similar scenarios, but it can’t necessarily tell you how to avoid war in the next fifteen minutes.

Feaver makes a clever suggestion, with which I agree: in the next survey, find out what policymakers are curious about in the world of interstate conflict. Perhaps academia already has the answer and need only point them to it, and perhaps it will open up new avenues for inquiry (that they can then write about in The Monkey Cage).

TRIP_Faculty_Survey2020_Jul_21

In comparing the academic and policy chapters, what emerges, for me, is an interesting question about what it is academics believe is the goal of research on interstate conflict, in real terms. In the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey, IR scholars in international security were slightly more likely to say that their research was “basic” (done simply for the sake of knowledge) than “applied” (with a specific policy application in mind). Kreps and Weeks argue that scholars need only make their research available for it to be useful for policymakers, but the belief in that goal seems less than universal.

Preview or buy Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations from Georgetown University Press here: bit.ly/Bridging-GUP

A Student Responds: Trade and the Theory-Practice Divide

by Morgan Doll

July 17, 2020

Edward Mansfield and Jon Pevehouse in “Trade Policy and Trade Policy Research” and Robert Zoellick in “Making International Relations Research On Trade More Relevant to Policy Officials” address the policy-scholarship divide in International Political Economy. Of articles that analyze trade in leading IR journals, “only 5 percent are coded as making an explicit policy recommendation.” While 52 percent of policymakers responding to the 2017 TRIP trade policy maker survey “reported relating arguments and evidence from social science research into their work on a daily basis,” it is impossible to tell whether specific policy recommendations by scholars have had an impact on policy decisions in practice. Mansfield and Pevehouse find, instead, that “developments in the global arena—many of which are driven by policy initiatives—are an impetus for much of the academic literature on the political economy of trade.” Zoellick in his response agrees with Mansfield & Pevehouse on the importance of history. He makes an addendum, emphasizing how transformative leaders play a role in this discussion. He points out how there are “times when political leaders resist and even block structures or systems that they believe are counterproductive” and, “in doing so, transformative leaders can create the basis for new, or at least substantially revised, orders.” In his opinion, both governments and citizens could gain a lot from scholarly contributions in policymaking.

In the current era of President Donald Trump, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and widespread anti-globalization sentiment, it is undeniable that the status quo has changed. With the Trump presidency, it seems as though policymakers are engaging even less with scholars. For example, in Snap Poll X, we asked scholars if they thought that free trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries have been a good thing or a bad thing for the United States. An overwhelming majority, 94.57% of respondents said that they have been a good thing.

TRIP_SP_2020_Jul_17

In spite of this information, Donald Trump and his advisors have increased trade protections on U.S. goods and started a trade war with China. During the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump has withdrawn from the WHO and pressured states to re-open despite public health officials’ advice, ignoring scholarly opinion once again. However, scholars are seemingly engaging more with policymakers today by critiquing and weighing in on the current President’s decisions. When searching for scholarly articles about “Trump” and “Trade” from 2016-2020 in the SWEM Library Database, 348,135 results came up. In comparison, when searching for “Obama” and “Trade,” 322,582 results surfaced, a 25,553 article difference. TRIP Snap Poll XI, which was released in 2018, shows that 64.64% of scholars report engaging in policy advocacy at the very least occasionally.  That being said, there is no information on whether or not these scholars make explicit policy recommendations in their work, or what types of advocacy these scholars engage in.

TRIP_SP_2020_Jul_17 (1)

Zoellick’s statement about political leaders creating a revised order by blocking systems they personally believe are counterproductive is precisely what President Trump has done during his term. The Trump Presidency has defied many norms, altering perceptions of the American presidency forever. This president does what he and his political base want, without considering the consequences, on issues from trade to education and public health. A new development that we must grapple with is the fact practitioners in the sphere of international relations are not always rational actors.

In agreement with Mansfield and Pevehouse’s view that developments in the global arena often affect scholarship, the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged scholars to question and research more about globalization, climate change, and global health. In Snap Poll XIII, 30.33% of respondents anticipated changing the focus of their research in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Additionally, in the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey, 70.73% of respondents reported responding to any major world event in the last five years by increasing or decreasing their research in an issue area related to that event.

TRIP_SP_2020_Jul_17 (2)

The arguments made about trade scholarship and policymaking in chapters 8 and 9 are just as applicable to the present day. Even though these authors could not predict the future with the volatile actions of the Trump Presidency and COVID-19 Pandemic, these developments give even more context and support to their arguments about trade policymaking and scholarship.

Preview or buy Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations from Georgetown University Press here: bit.ly/Bridging-GUP