Chris Blattman

The decline of (academic) public intellectuals

Not many top-ranked scholars of international relations are going into government, and even fewer return to contribute to academic theory. The 2008 Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) poll, by the Institute for Theory and Practice in International Relations, showed that of the 25 scholars rated as producing the most interesting scholarship during the past five years, only three had ever held policy positions (two in the U.S. government and one in the United Nations). The fault for this growing gap lies not with the government but with the academics.

Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one’s career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers.

A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967. Editor Lee Sigelman observed in the journal’s centennial issue that “if ‘speaking truth to power’ and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.”

That is Joe Nye writing in the Washington Post.

4 Responses

  1. I seriously doubt you need a study to prove the point. Any layman can see the decadence of academia. How irrelevant it has become.

    The audience is also to blame. We can begin by demanding that the humanities not ape science. Just witness how economic theory, prostrate before the false idol of mathematical models, helped vicious money managers misallocate resources and wreck the world economy.

    As human beings and citizens we desperately need to restore the humanities to health and relevance, so they can help address the formidable problems they alone can answer, albeit never perfectly.

  2. Shouldn’t this be the point of Harvard’s MPA/ID? Bridging PhD level economics with real-world analytics to produce sounder policy?

  3. Shouldn’t someone rip the TRIP poll for its methodology, and thereby prove Nye’s point?

    While we’re speculating, I would suggest that the irrelevance of the academy is causing the proliferation of policymakers, development professionals, and think-tankers with Phds, as well as the increase in blogs and books for general audiences by academics. But more study is needed!

  4. I imagine it is hard to re-establish credibility in the academy after a stint in government; however the number of policy-makers with Phds or other graduate study has increased.

    The Foregin Policy magazine definition of “Public Intellectual” includes many non-academics Hasn’t there also been an increase in academics writing books aimed a general readership?

Comments are closed.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog