Friday, May 23, 2014

Gap Between Academia and Policy for Latin America

I was pleased with the roundtable we had at LASA about the disconnect between academia and the policy world with regard to Latin America. It was a lot of fun and I think sparked some great discussion. The panelists were Chris Sabatini, Shannon O'Neil, Bill LeoGrande and Frank Mora.

We did note that many policy makers remain hostile or just indifferent to academia, especially at high levels. As scholars, we can't control that but we can take some of our own steps.

We've made too little progress and the gap remains unbridged to a significant degree. In some ways, political science as a discipline has moved away from policy even as the possible means of dissemination through social media has expanded. For that reason, individuals must be entrepreneurial, knowing they may not receive much (or any) credit toward the goals of tenure, promotion, and merit raises.

Here are some concrete suggestions that came out of the discussion. We covered a lot and this is not exhaustive but it provides a sense of what we (and the audience) were thinking about.

1. Learn to write in different ways. Speak the language. Strip out the jargon and get straight to the point. Side note: this is one way in which The Monkey Cage is a great venue, as it essentially translates academic work into something more accessible.

2. Shop that writing. You can blog, of course, but you can also write op-eds. Plus, you should contact people in thinks tanks and introduce yourself, which can often even be done via Twitter. Write for Americas Quarterly or Foreign Policy. Communicate with reporters and get quoted, which then raises your profile and allows you to get your voice heard, even if just a little bit.

3. Try to exhort a little less. We all have opinions, sometimes very strong, but you need to convey information, not just how much you want a policy changed. Latin Americanists are often tagged as adversarial, which may be true in many policy areas but your voice is stronger if you make your case without too much ideology.

4. Learn the policy process. It is very easy to demand change but recognize the obstacles to policy reform when you're making a case. It is easy for policy makers (or say, staffers who may read these articles and discuss them) to dismiss analyses they believe naive.

5. Be aware of what you don't know. Even if you understand the policy process pretty well, you do not know the inner workings of different parts of the government. Who is in, who is out, what personal differences there are, etc. At least recognize that your policy prescriptions may not even be possible (or at least need more nuance) under given circumstances.

6. Incorporate it into your classes. One great idea (I need to give Shannon O'Neil credit here) is to arrange for policy analysts to Skype into a class and talk to students. Have students write op-eds and policy briefs. I am going to think about all of that as I prepare my Latin American Politics syllabus for the Fall 2014 semester.

It's true that these and other issues are not entirely new. Alexander George in particular had grappled with them years ago. But one point that came up several times is that the difference now is social media. You do not need to go to DC to meet people. In fact, I had not yet met my fellow panelists in person even though I had been in touch with them in various ways over time through blogging, Twitter, and email.


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