Every so often, the issues and questions of whether “social sciences are relevant” or “how can we social scientists impact how policy is made” come back to academic circles, both online and offline. Recently, Don Moynihan, Michael Horowitz and Jay Ulfelder have written about this issue, and I would encourage you to read their posts. As someone with an interdisciplinary background (I’m originally a chemical engineer, with a Masters in technology management and economics of technical change, and a PhD that gave me training both as a political scientist and as a human geographer) my concern is four-fold:
- first, to be recognized as a political scientist and someone who knows the literature;
- second, to have my human geography scholarship acknowledged and respected;
- third, to be accepted in a department of public administration (which isn’t much of an issue itself, as much as my own self-consciousness because I’m more of a public policy scholar than I am of public management and public administration)
- fourth, to have my interdisciplinary background and research understood, recognized and applied to the real world
The biggest challenge I face when writing grant proposals is not the ever-shrinking pool of money itself, but having potential reviewers understand why it is important to include political science theories, anthropological research methods, spatial analysis and geographical literature in a project on informal waste pickers, for example. I remember a wise professor of mine who said “departments say they want interdisciplinarity, but when it comes to hiring, they’ll hire someone within the discipline”. So, for example, a political science department will want to hire a political scientist (e.g. someone with a PhD in political science). This may be changing as the number of tenure-track positions also shrinks worldwide, but it’s a reality. Everyone wants “interdisciplinary work” but defends their own disciplinary silos too.
I myself find it a challenge to convince fellow academics of the importance of conducting research that crosses disciplinary boundaries. Can you imagine how open government folks will be to this type of applied research when academics themselves can’t see the importance of crossing the comfortable boundaries of their own disciplinary silo? I liked Don’s suggestions of how to take steps to bridge the academic-practitioner divide, and Michael’s clear demarcations of policy relevance and actionability. But like Jay, I would like to take a skeptical view. I particularly like this point that Jay makes:
With so much uncertainty and so much at stake, I wind up thinking that, unless their research designs have carefully address these assumptions, scholars—in their roles as scientists, not as citizens or advocates—should avoid that last mile and leave it to the elected officials and bureaucrats hired for that purpose.
Why is it important to let policy-makers try to push for applicability of social science research? Because it’s hard to do without being thrown into the political arena (often times, as Tressie McMillan Cottom argues, without having a structure in place within their own universities and institutions to support them). And that’s one challenge of being an advocate and a public intellectual is that, particularly in challenging and sensitive policy areas, scholars and their work will be attacked not on the basis of scientific research but even falling into damning critiques of the academic as an individual and their personality. Because, as Tressie aptly points out, being a public intellectual “means pissing people off”. And if we want to have our interdisciplinary research be relevant, ourselves and our institutions will need to be comfortable with pissing people off, conservative and unidisciplinary academics and politicians and politicized constituencies alike.
I do like a good challenge, though, and I plan to continue to advocate for (and engage in) interdisciplinary, applied public policy research, hoping that (and pushing for) my work will be relevant, insightful and credible enough for policy-makers to implement it in the national and international policy arenas.