What’s the Baseline for Policy Relevance?

Over at Duck of Minerva Dan Nexon offers an interesting post responding to Eric Voeten’s Monkey Cage post about two recent articles that reach opposite conclusions about the impact of a nuclear arsenal on country’s tendency to make stronger demands during coercive bargaining, and thus whether nukes enhance country’s ability to deter and/or compel one another.  Taking the discussion to the current kerfuffle in the US about public funding of political science research Nexon notes that these articles

have very different policy implications for current (and potentially high-stakes) debates.

and wonders

In an era when political scientists are going out of their way to push research that bears directly on policy concerns, what should we do with such a situation?

Code me confused.  This is what I do not understand: controversy is the normal state of affairs in all research.  Let’s select an area of research that nobody claims should be drained of funding on the grounds of policy relevance: medical.  Perhaps this is not widely known, but every issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, etc. contains letters and opinion pieces that take specific issue with both the conclusions drawn, and especially policy implications of, work published in the preceding issues.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for debate to occur within the pages of a single issue.  Moving to the level of an individual patient seeking medical advice the term “second opinion” leads few to bat an eye.  Yet in 2013 the US will apparently pour more than $11 billion into funding the Center for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry,  and more than $26 billion into the National Institutes of Health.  [To be sure, a non-trivial (and unknown to me) portion of that funding is corporate welfare supporting pharmacology and the R&D missions of other medical field corporations, and thus is better understood as the outcome of industry lobbying than investment in the production of basic knowledge.  But for simplicity, let’s ignore that.]

Nexon continues

 the debate over the issue suggests that “we” don’t have anything approaching a settled answer, which takes us back to the bigger issue, How do “we” present work as “political science” in a way that (1) does justice to its scholarly nature but (2) also signals the most important thing about its social-scientific quality–that its findings are likely far from settled?

Like the major medical journals, International Security publish debates, and has even published letters (decades ago the American Political Science Review did as well).  As editor of International Organization David Lake tried to launch a side project to serve that function, but Dialogue IO, was short lived.  Few political science journals, however, provide space for political scientists to air, in brief, our disagreements.  And perhaps the blogosphere can provide a decentralized solution.  But it seems to me that Nexon’s concern is wholly misplaced, based on an empirically false set of beliefs about the policy implications of all scientific fields.

I remember during the Great Cholesterol Debate of 1987 watching the PBS News Hour’s attempt to cover the debate devolve into a more-or-less “name calling” geek fest.  It was a fabulously awkward 10 minutes of television that must have made most MDs and medical researchers wish they could crawl into a hole and emerge only after their field was no longer the butt of jokes on late night talk shows.  I was a grad student then and thought that I should count myself lucky that in my field the journals do not hold press conferences to announce the findings in each new issue, some of which make it onto the nightly newscasts of the major US networks.  On the other hand, I have wondered if a weekly 30-60 second news program for political science modeled on Earth & Sky might be able to find its way onto the a non-trivial number of National Public Radio affiliates broadcast of Morning Edition or All Things Considered (or Science Friday?) in the US.  At some level, The Monkey Cage, and similar blogs, perform the function, but with a considerably smaller audience.

Like Nexon I will close with a question, rather than an answer: what should be the baseline expectation for converting the knowledge claims we publish for the consumption of similarly trained academics into publicly consumable knowledge claims that advance policy recommendations?  By directing those of us who blog to this question, Nexon’s post has considerable value.  Where the post gets it wrong is to implicitly suggest that we might expect to sing with one voice.  That is an inappropriate standard that no field expects to meet, and we need to vigorously resist efforts that suggest it is a reasonable one.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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One Response to What’s the Baseline for Policy Relevance?

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Morning Linkage Club » Duck of Minerva

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