Political Scientists Propose New Ways to Engage Policy Makers and the Public

August 29, 2014

Public outreach has become a major topic of conversation in the academy as it battles widespread perceptions that university research is often irrelevant to what policy makers and the public care about. Political science is no exception. At this week’s annual conference of the American Political Science Association here, scholars have been discussing how they can make their voices heard beyond academe to show that their work is both relevant and useful.

But such outreach is rarely rewarded: It doesn’t often appear in tenure and promotion criteria, it’s not counted alongside journal citations, and nobody gets time off to write an op-ed. And that is the problem. If you want scholars to reach out, you have to provide many levels of support, concluded an APSA task force on effective engagement, which released its findings this week.

"It’s easy to see this as a zero-sum game," said Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College who served on the task force. To get tenure young scholars still need to write journal articles and present their research at conferences, so anything extra they do takes time away from those core responsibilities.

The chairman of the task force, Arthur Lupia, a political-science professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, noted that the association had formed several such groups in recent years, fueling skepticism about its commitment to helping engage scholars with the public. But this time, he believes, larger forces are pushing things in the right direction.

A ‘Deeply Flawed’ Strategy

For one, a growing number of networks and training programs have been created to help social scientists translate their research for a general audience and connect with policy makers and citizen groups.

Then there is the bottomless appetite for data-driven analysis—something social scientists are particularly good at—by explainer blogs like Monkey Cage, The Upshot, Wonkblog, Five Thirty Eight, and Vox. In fact, two of the task force’s members, Mr. Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck of the University of California at Los Angeles, began writing for The Upshot this year.

While those outlets open new avenues for academics, they also make traditional methods of scholarly communication—academic journals and conference presentations—seem "slow, unengaging, and ineffective," the task force noted in its report to the association’s governing council, which unanimously backed its recommendations this week.

Another factor driving such outreach has been steady criticism from certain quarters of Congress, where politicians have been questioning the value and purpose of social-science research. Last year Congress temporarily limited federal support for political-science research by the National Science Foundation to projects that promote national security or American economic interests. This year a bill in the House of Representatives proposed cutting NSF funding and adding layers of review to social-science research. An APSA panel on Friday will focus on how political scientists can better engage with lawmakers to show the value of their work.

"We’ve written hundreds of books on lobbying and Congress, yet our strategy on lobbying is deeply flawed," noted Mr. Nyhan wryly.

Looking Outward

The task force’s recommendations focus on what the political-science association could do to support its members, such as hiring an outreach director, developing a training program to teach political scientists how to communicate, and establishing awards for scholars who are effective at outreach.

In coming up with their suggestions, members looked to other associations for ideas, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mr. Lupia noted that virtually the entire first day of the AAAS’s annual conference is devoted to sessions designed to explain hot topics in science to the news media and other nonscientists.

"There’s a culture in these organizations that we have to figure this out," Mr. Lupia said of more outward-looking disciplinary associations. "We’re not there yet. We have no infrastructure."

Cheryl Boudreau, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Davis and a member of the task force, said academics—particularly junior scholars—often just need help in figuring out how to connect with people beyond academe and understanding the benefits it brings them. For example, she helped the League of Women Voters draw up an issue guide and then devised an experiment to determine how issue guides influence voters’ views. That research led to a journal article.

At the same time, she notes how difficult it is for junior scholars to think about presenting their work in different ways if there’s no encouragement to do so. She recalls giving a talk on some research she had done to an audience that included academics and members of the news media. With no clear direction on which group she should aim at, she ended up tailoring her presentation to her peers, complete with dense academic jargon. They loved it. The reporters: not so much. "One by one, the members of the media walked out the door," she recalled. "From a public-outreach perspective, this talk was a disaster."

The good news, she said, is that, while working on the task force, she saw lots of interest in their ideas from across academe. Younger scholars may be more savvy about social media, but seasoned academics understand the need to adapt to the changing landscape as well. "A lot of the momentum," she said, "is at the top."