Saturday, June 5, 2010

Linking political science and politics

I'm at the State Politics and Policy conference right now.  In addition to the usual panels on, well, state politics and policy, there have been a few special panels on the relevance of our research to the rest of the political world.  These have been fascinating glimpses into both the mindsets of political actors and the perceptions they have of academics.

The first event was a panel discussion with former governors Madeleine Kunin (D-VT), Jim Edgar (R-IL), Parris Glendening (D-MD), and Bob Taft (R-OH).  When asked how political science could be more relevant to state policymakers, they advised us to look into a number of different topics that they thought might be of concern.  Taft thought we should investigate the effects of redistricting.  A few were interested in legislative partisanship.  Kunin mentioned campaign finance reform.  What really struck me was that they were pleading for research that already exists, largely done by scholars who were there in the room.  This research just isn't making its way into the hands of state policymakers.

One way that we could possibly get more of our research placed in front of state leaders, the governors suggested, was to build ties with their staffs.  We could contact them through our university lobbyists, we could invited staffers to speak in our classes, etc.  Some of us are doing this, of course, but in general this strikes me as solid advice.  Then the staffers would be more likely to seek out our research, involve us in the legislative process, or invite us to testify.

Of course, another way to communicate with policymakers is via the media.  We had a fascinating panel discussion with four seasoned reporters who used to cover statehouses.  When asked how we could be more relevant to them, they basically suggested we become more like journalists -- write in more accessible language, focus on solutions, etc.  They advised us to blog!

I had a fun back-and-forth with David Yepsen (formerly of the Des Moines Register) in which I suggested that we had different perspectives.  For example, I research partisanship, and when I talk to reporters about it, they ask me what we're going to do about this problem.  I have two reactions to this: 1) I don't really see partisanship as a problem; and 2) Even if I did, I got into this line of work to study the phenomenon, not to get rid of it.  I didn't get a lot of good/bad training in grad school. I'm far more interested in understanding how the political world works than in changing it.  Yepsen seemed surprised -- You have no feelings about this one way or another?  You're just a planted pot?  -- and he urged me to explain to reporters how I felt.  But this is where I'm uncomfortable.  My expertise is in understanding.  I don't know that I'm any more qualified to say what's good or bad than anyone else.  At any rate, the discussion just reminded me of the real disconnect between academics and journalists, although I'm sure we can be doing more to communicate with each other.

1 comment:

Gregory Koger said...

This is a big question. Some small thoughts:
1) yes, it would be great if some political scientists hosted blogs. Heh.
2) It would also help if poli sci research was accessible. "Accessible" means a minimum of jargon (though sometimes it is necessary to use precise words) and the simple and visual explanation of statistical results. I think the discipline has been moving in this direction. But to do so means balancing the desire to look smart to our colleagues (esp. reviewers) and our collective interest in engaging outside audiences.
3) But why blogs? Blog entries make their points in short blasts. Politicians (and probably journalists) don't want to invest the time to read a full book or 20-page article. It has to be worth our while to present our work in variable lengths, e.g. executive summaries or, of course, blog posts.
4) It would help if there was some sort of centralized aggregation of political science wisdom. Much of our research makes incremental improvement to existing research so that, if I wanted to actually understand the body of research on an issue, I would have to carefully identify ALL the work on that topic and then sit down and read for a few months.

It would be nice if we had some authorized wiki (oxymoron alert) that collected the best wisdom of political science so a reporter could easily find out what we think we know--and maybe even suggest hypotheses to test.