Frustrations and Opportunities

Knowledge brokering19 Feb 2010Alexander von Rosenbach

Speaking honestly at the halfway point here, I would say that this conference has been in many ways frustrating to attend. Given the conference theme, ‘Theory Versus Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners’, I have been surprised at how few academics appear to treat this subject in a serious manner. Most appear comfortable acknowledging that there is a problem and a need for better linkages; however, most are unwilling to take the next step and begin considering solutions.

As I mentioned before, there is a lot of academic research being presented that has the potential for policy relevance, but most social scientists still seem to be disconnected – either consciously or unconsciously – from the fact that their research is often grounded in the real world. By way of example, I was shocked this morning when one panellist asked another to explain “why fewer deaths matter” when examining violence levels in post-demobilisation Colombia. That these kinds of questions – the answers to which seem obvious – can be asked at this conference of all conferences is a very worrying thing.

Wanting to comfort myself with some positive developments, I next attended a roundtable entitled “Bringing Students and Practitioners Together in the International Relations (IR) Classroom”. This discussion was focused primarily on the successes and failures of speaker-based courses as compared to more traditional approaches to educating students. Specifically, the panel examined the ‘Globalisation of International Affairs’ programme at Bard College, New York, and the IR Policy Studies programme at Yale University. These studies both aim to educate students about the world of policy, including one semester where students work in full-time internships, attend core courses in the evenings and also attend weekly presentations from visiting speakers from the public, private and non-governmental sectors.

According Elizabeth Plum, a former Bard student and now employed with the Central American Legal Assistance organisation, the intent of the programme is to bring a “human and realistic element” to an academic field (IR) that can often be “theory-soaked and abstract”. Similarly, Tanvi Madan, who worked on the Yale programme, said that its purpose was “to bring the real world to New Haven”. In her view, encouraging students to respond to IR problems with practical solutions – brief memos that include considerations of costs, timeframes and other feasibility issues – is the “most real-world simulation you can get in a classroom”.

While many of these students quickly progress to policy positions after graduation, it is interesting to note that a full 25% of students from the Yale programme go on to doctoral studies, where they become part of the next generation of academics. The hope at Yale and Bard – and shared by me – is that this early and intensive experience of what Plum called ‘hands-on social science’ stays with these budding academics as they integrate into the university system.