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International Relations Scholars Debate the Divide between Theory and Practice

The Teaching, Research and International Policy Project (TRIP) kicked off its “Strengthening the Links” conference at William & Mary on Wednesday evening with a keynote panel well qualified to engage in an honest discussion of the issues that have historically led to some tension and missed opportunities between the academic and public policy worlds.
Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this conference aims to bring together academics and policy makers to discuss how to better facilitate collaboration and improve both the study and practice of international relations. Participants include scholars and policy experts representing eight issue areas in IR, such as war, foreign aid, trade and human rights.

The keynote, which was co-sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, brought the conference attendees together with more than 60 members of the Williamsburg community, including William & Mary students, faculty and staff, and representatives from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Reves Advisory Board and regional media.

Following an introduction by Vice Provost for International Affairs Dr. Stephen Hanson, the Hon. Mitchell Reiss, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, moderated the panel, which included the Hon. Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, Dr. Sarah Kreps, Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University and former U.S. Air Force Officer, and Dr. Peter Feaver, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, who served on the National Security Council staff in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The keynote began with the panelists outlining their views of the relationship between government and the academy.

Feaver and Kreps expressed a generally optimistic view of the academy-policy gap. Feaver cited the conference itself as evidence that both academics and policymakers seek to bridge the gap.

All panelists mentioned the difficulty in capturing the influence of the academy in the policy world, as policymakers generally do not cite work or make reference to academic arguments. Feaver said that “academics perceive influence as Susan Rice calling and asking for opinions,” but pointed out that influence rarely takes that very direct form. Panelists viewed the influence of the academy as more nuanced, as ideas from academic debates and theories are more likely to be considered by policy planning staff and intelligence analysts, and filter up to top decision makers.

In Kreps’s view, practitioners function as the demand for ideas, while academics, and their methods serve as the supply side. Think-tanks serve as the “translators between practitioners and academics.” Think tanks address a crucial need to translate “into language that is accessible to policymakers.” Kreps cited her own experiences working with each of the three.

Differing methodologies also emerged as a reason that academics and policymakers do not have closer links. While Feaver was quick to point out that “the gap is not simply about methodology,” all panelists alluded to differing methods as a source of differences between the academic and policy approaches.

After outlining the underlying issues, panelists offered suggestions on how to bridge the gap between the academy and policy worlds. Zoellick reflected on his decision making while working at the World Bank, and cited a need for multidisciplinary work that takes a wide-scope look at the problems policy makers face.

Kreps was quick to caution academics going too far to bridge the gap. She commented that “neither academics nor policy makers are necessarily good at anticipating what is policy relevant, so it is bad policy for us to try to anticipate what will be policy relevant and only do that.”

Perhaps owing to his career in so many different agencies and capacities, Zoellick took the opportunity several times to note that pressures on “politicians and parliamentarians … who wake up every day and have to solve problems.”

He advised asking, "What is the question we’re trying to answer? What is the problem we’re trying to solve?”

He emphasized learning about the “history of a problem -- what happened? What’s worked before? What didn’t work, and if it didn’t, why not?”

He noted that sometimes the tendency in academia is to focus on one specific piece of a problem, but “if scholars can help explain how the parts relate it can be more useful to decision makers.”

As Zoellick cautioned panelists and the audience: “Don’t forget the public in public policy.”

TRIP is based at the Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations (ITPIR) at William & Mary. TRIP Principal Investigators are Dr. Dan Maliniak, Department of Government at William & Mary, Sue Peterson, Director of International Relations at William & Mary, Ryan Powers, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Mike Tierney, Director of the Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations. For more information on TRIP’s research and student opportunities, visit here.