Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Enough hand-wringing! Steps to bridge the academic-practitioner divide


By Donald Moynihan.  In recent contributions to Governance, Stephen Del Rosso and Richard French raise the alarm about the gap between the academics and policymakers. These are two different worlds, and its natural some gap exists, but it may not be quite the “canyon” suggested, and there are some practical steps we can take to bridge the gap.

First, Del Rosso and French’s concerns center on political science. While I will defer to other political scientists who wish to rebut their argument, its sufficient to note that political science is not the only field relevant to governance, and other fields, such as economics and public policy, do play a role in policymaking. Del Rosso ties the fall of political science on an “obsession with method.” I don’t think this is quite right. Better methods generally buy us better causal insights, and presumably policymakers care about this. Few doubt the influence of economists, who have been at the vanguard of methodological innovation.

A slightly different interpretation, though one sympathetic to Del Rosso and French, is that social science disciplines have gradually come to treat work of practical relevance as holding lesser value than novel theoretical work. In political science numerous pioneering figures were concerned with public administration, and many worked in government. But the practical interests of scholars such as Luther Gulick made their work vulnerable to criticism from both critical theorists and positivists. In the latter part of the 20th century, the discipline of the political science retreated from the applied study of policy and administration.

As disciplines devalue applied work, they reduce their own relevance. But they also, inadvertently, create lively niches where academics that do care about practical problems learn to balance the demands of rigor and relevance. Public administration evolved from a subfield of political science into a distinct field of study, and in some settings married with other interdisciplinary studies such as public policy. While it might be fair to assert that such applied fields lack a coherent intellectual framework, they are better able to defend their relevance. Applied scholarship has exerted influence on policy when it takes on relevant questions, applies rigorous research methods, and builds bridges to practitioners. What are some practical lessons that universities, individual academics, and practitioners can take to encourage such work?


Reward design: Design is a different way of thinking about scholarship – emphasizing what-if rather than what happened questions – but can be pursued in a way that is absolutely consistent with ideals of academic rigor. The MIT Poverty Action Lab is an example of how universities can encourage their scholars to focus more on design questions that can be tested via field experiments.

Reward service: Tenure and promotion is the most powerful lever than a university has to set incentives and signal norms. Both Del Rosso and French suggest that policy relevance matters little to tenure and promotion. That has not been my experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I sit on the university social science committee and our tenure guidelines require that one must demonstrate excellence in research, and either teaching or “service to the public, the university, and the profession.” Universities who do not explicitly make service a formal part of social science tenure requirements should do so. (Some enterprising graduate student could provide a service by identifying how frequently tenure requirements emphasize public service). However, even in a university such as mine, where relevance does truly matter to tenure decisions, we could do much more to communicate to faculty that service beyond the academy is valued within it.


Intern while a PhD student: There is no substitute for gaining an understanding of practitioner needs than by working directly with them, and some fellowships exist to facilitate such interaction. But the later we get in our careers, the harder it is to move academics from campus, and the more fixed we are in our research agenda. When I was a PhD student I interned for two summers at the World Bank, which was incredibly important in helping me to understand how practitioners framed the problems I was interested in.

Your CV should have a service section: Its easy not to keep track of those op-eds, media interviews, blogs, talks to community groups, and consulting with public organizations. Recording such activities on your CV communicates that service is important.

Build personal connections with practitioners: Most of the opportunities I have had to work with practitioners have been based on a handful of personal contacts, made early in my career. Cultivate these relationships!

Pursue non-academic forms of communication: Rewrite the implications of your paper as a policy report, a 1-2 page policy brief, a blog, and a tweet. You don’t have to do it all yourself. I have benefited immensely from working with think tanks or foundations that see their job as translating academic insights for policymakers. Work with your university public relations department.

Send your research to practitioners: Practitioners are busy, and chances are they will not have time to read your terrific new piece in Governance. If you think someone in government would benefit from what you are working on, email them your research.


Set your data free: Practitioners may not realize that they often have something of immense value to researchers, which is data. There is no better way to motivate an academic then to offer data that enables an evidence-based answer to an interesting question. Better yet, partner with them to develop field experiments to test new ideas you are interested in. One barrier to data-sharing is governmental caution, but any risks are mitigated by university review boards. While the Obama administration seeks to encourage data-sharing, the best models come from Scandinavia. In countries like Denmark academics have access to detailed administrative data to answer questions vital to the well-being of their citizens, and governments have a reasonable expectation that they will take on such questions.

Spend money on travel: Even if its not a big cost, its tempting to cut travel to signal austerity. But doing so removes one of the most effective means of connecting academia and practice. Knowledge still travels most effectively the old-fashioned way: from one person to another. Fund employees to go to research conferences, and give them a budget to bring in scholars to offer new insights.

No silver bullet will vastly reduce the gap between policy and academia, and even with good-faith effort by scholars to provide evidence on key questions, policymakers can, and will, frequently ignore them. But more can be done, and the steps presented above offer low-hanging fruit.

Donald P. Moynihan is Professor of Public Affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a member of the National Academy of Administration, and the winner of the Kershaw Award, provided every two years to one scholar under the age of 40 for outstanding contributions to public policy and management. He has presented his research to the OECD, the US Office of Management and Budget, and the World Bank. Follow him at @donmoyn.  

Written by Governance

May 25, 2015 at 7:56 am

Posted in Blog comments


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