Can You Be a Social Scientist and a Policy Advocate at the Same Time?
I think you can be both, but I’m less sure today than I was thirty years ago.
I loved working in the U.S. government. Of course, there were challenges: long hours, missed birthdays, long overnight flights to Central Asia, bureaucratic inertia, and even a little backstabbing. Moreover, success in foreign policy can only be achieved if you have willing foreign partners. It takes two to tango and we did not have a dance partner after Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. (I wrote a whole book about those policy struggles, still available on Amazon!) But I could easily put up with the hard parts of the job because I truly liked and believed in the work we were doing.
First, unlike my academic job, where I am mostly sitting alone behind my screen writing (like right now), I loved being a part of the team. There are no authors or footnotes in government work. I wrote – or “chopped” on -- many memos, cables and speeches that never identified me as an author or co-author. At briefings, we were all devoted to one cause – help the president get ready for his next meeting. It was never about any one of us. I loved that.
And our team was headed by one of the leaders I respect and admire most, President Barack Obama. In fact, I devoted my remarks at my swearing-in-ceremony as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia to the joys of having “teamers” (a word invented by one of my sons when playing first-grade basketball).
Second, I valued the feeling of having a singular mission, one sense of purpose, which was to help formulate and advance President Obama’s foreign policy goals on behalf of the American people. There were no side gigs or competing interests for me while working in government.
My current work as a Stanford professor lacks these two attributes of government work. First, almost everything I do or say has my personal name on it. I can’t hide behind the “senior administration official” (SAO) identity when talking to reporters. I can’t say “we” when speaking on television. The words I write today almost always have my name attached to them. And in this hyperconnected, modern-day world, critics of my ideas also become critics of me personally almost instantaneously. Read my Twitter feed! It’s all so very personal.
The second difference is more challenging. In my current professional career, I am constantly toggling between several jobs simultaneously. My main job is not so much in the public limelight -- running the Freeman Spogli Institute on International Studies at Stanford, a 400-person research organization where I do development, appointments, faculty affairs, courses, conferences, seminars, hosting visitors, etc. You can read a summary of the Institute’s work from last year here. In addition, I have four other major streams of work: (1) academic research and writing (2) teaching (3) public commentary and (4) policy advocacy. Balancing the standards and norms of the first two tasks against the expectations and demands of the second two is not easy, and sometimes impossible.
For me, academic research, writing, and teaching are all about explanation. In one part of my research agenda in what political scientists call comparative politics, I have been trying for decades to identify what factors – in the vernacular of our profession, “independent variables” – cause democratic breakthroughs and consolidation and what factors cause the opposite. In another part of research agenda in what political scientists call international relations, I have tried to explain what variables cause conflict between countries and what variables produce cooperation. In doing research on these questions, and other academic topics, explaining causation is what matters most.
Conversely, policy advocacy is focused on prescription. Of course, scientific explanation should inform and guide prescription. Giving advice about foreign policy unhinged from the past is malpractice. Advocating for a policy that scientific research has proven to be unfeasible is irresponsible. And there can be clear “policy implications” that flow directly from academic work. For instance, the first academic article I ever published was called “The Demise of the World Revolutionary Process: Soviet-Angolan Relations Under Gorbachev,” in the Journal of Southern African Studies in 1990. The article focused on explaining changes in Soviet foreign policy, but the policy implication was that Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in foreign policy was making the world more peaceful. The second article I published in a refereed journal was called “Rethinking the `Reagan Doctrine' in Angola” in International Security in the winter of 1989/1990. The article suggested clear policy implications about the folly of continuing U.S. support for South Africa’s war in Angola. But both articles, like all of my articles published in refereed journals, focused on explanation, not prescription.
NB, to my critics who accuse me of always being pro-American and anti-Russian: note that my first article praised Kremlin’s actions and the second criticized U.S. actions! I’ll say more on this in a future Substack post.
However, the connection between academic research and policy advocacy is not always clear, especially in the world of international relations and foreign policy where big theories are so general that they can lead to multiple, competing, prescriptions. Just look at the debate regarding Ukraine —self-prescribed realists have proffered radically different prescriptions to the U.S. policymakers on how to respond to the war.
So, if in this grey area, in which you cannot substantiate a policy claim with irrefutable scientific evidence, are you not allowed to have an opinion? Or if you engage in public policy debates and opinion production, must you hand in your membership to the American Political Science Association?
With some discipline, I still think you can divide these two missions. Albeit with less frequency now than earlier in my career, I still seek to publish articles in refereed academic journals. That kind of research and writing keeps me committed to thinking about explanation, causation, evidence, alternative hypotheses, counterfactuals. And that kind of thinking makes my commentary and public policy writing more rigorous, or so I believe. Peer review for academic journals and books has lots of flaws, but it is better than the alternative.
And let me confess, when I hit 10,000 citations on Google Scholar in 2022, that meant something to me. It is not a big number. And most of the world has no idea what Google Scholar is! But I still want my academic peers to read my work, as I in turn try to read theirs. Keeping engaged with academic research and writing matters to me.
I also think that I can write opinion pieces, express normative positions on television, and advocate for certain foreign policies without abandoning my commitment to academic research. Timewise, there is a tradeoff between academic research and public advocacy, but it’s doable. The key – the absolute cardinal rule – is not to dress up one’s opinions as scholarship. This is most important rule in my classroom, where I try to structure everything around causality and explanation. And when we veer off into more prescriptive, opinion-driven conversations, which can also be educational, I ensure that all students my know that we have done so. And that we don’t stay there very long.
Unfortunately, I have found that achieving such structure can be more difficult in the public domain. Those who swim in the world of opinion sometimes reject my analytical findings.
When I showed up to serve as the U.S. ambassador in Russia in 2012, pro-Putin television commentators claimed that I was sent by Obama to foment revolution, because a decade earlier I had published an academic book with Cornell University Press called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. Published in 2001, my book sought to explain why Russia’s democratic institutions were weak and unconsolidated. But my critics on television described that book as a prescriptive blueprint for revolutionary action!
More recently, when I have argued that Putin is motivated by ideology, and not just by Russian national interests, based on previous academic research showing the casual influence of his ideas on Russian foreign policy, such as this International Security article, I am berated as an “ideologue”. (And that’s one of the nicer words used! “Neocon warmonger” is more common.) Somehow, identifying ideas as an independent variable in your academic work makes you an ideologue in the public policy world.
Conversely, when recently making the analytical statement that Putin succeeded in impeding NATO expansion by invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, I was berated on social media as a Russia-lover. It should go without saying that I radically detest Putin’s wars in 2008, 2014, and now in 2022. However, I cannot suspend my assessment of history just because I support Ukraine’s current cause. At least, I cannot do that as a professor.
I also worry that my colleagues in academia find engaging with the public debate to be unscholarly, be it by publishing in Foreign Affairs or the Washington Post or especially appearing on television. Professors don’t do tv, or so I’ve been warned!
My view is always this: if I – the professor – say no to being on television or writing an op-ed, then someone with less commitment to academic norms about causation and data will take my place. But I know that not everyone agrees with that assessment. And I worry that younger scholars shy away from public policy debates for fear of damaging their academic reputations, especially before tenure. And so that means these debates are dominated by those not worried about causation and evidence, but more committed to (and rewarded for) pushing passionate opinions.
So maybe it is, in fact, impossible to do both these days? I don’t know anymore. What do you think? Send me your thoughts, I’ll digest, and then write a follow up piece here.
Join McFaul's World by subscribing below. I look forward to engaging with you all!
Can you be both a social scientist and a policy advocate? I am certainly glad that you try to be both. When I aspired to academia, at the time you were writing about the Soviets in Angola (as was I), I also had the policy world in mind. Not advocacy, mind you, but work in government, in making policy and carrying it out. I believed then, and believe now, that each world does better if it is informed by the other. Yet academics and policymakers do much to keep that other at arms length.
Working in both at the same time, as you do as academic and advocate, is difficult. At bottom, it may be impossible to serve both worlds equally well. The positions one advocates will almost assuredly bleed into one's academic work (the converse is less problematic). Your view of the Russia/Ukraine conflict, for example, differs from Mearsheimer's, but you and Mearsheimer come down on different sides of the policy debates. Your position, your understanding of Putin, as show in the International Security article, surely informs your advocacy. It cannot--should not--be otherwise. Which position came first--academic or advocacy--is a chicken-and-egg problem that no one will solve.
A related issue that you did not raise is whether academics can write for a broad public and not just the narrow audience in their discipline. An argument for scholarly work aimed at the public is that it brings sophisticated arguments hashed out in academia to public debates, to the benefit of everyone. Doing this well takes are rare set of talents and skills. Some can do it--Joseph Nye is a prime example--but too few try. Your advocacy, which I follow closely, does the same.
This is an interesting topic. On February 25, 2022, my Political Science colleague emailed me and said in a week we are doing a public talk with our Geography colleague on what just happened in Russia/Ukraine. He continued to write that he would talk about the roles of the EU and NATO, our Geography colleague can handle the details of the past thirty years of break up of the USSR and ethnic and geographical change... so for you as the historian... well... tell us why Putin is doing this.
We chatted over Zoom and I said he was crazy, but we kept talking and decided to do something like this for my giant community college audience just outside of Chicago. Despite our trepidation, it went well. I am not sure what I said to this day. In summer 2022, I took early retirement (not because of this, ha!), but as I looked back at boxes of things in my office over decades I noticed something...
I am a historian, so not in my mind a social scientist, but a humanist. That is a distinction not worth discussing here, but I normally do not deal with current affairs, but I research and publish on Russian-American relations-in a historical context rather than in a contemporary way. However, my boxes were full of flyers (perhaps over 100) of talks I had given about Russia on many contemporary and historical topics since the 1990s at Chicago area public libraries, civic organizations, study groups, etc... What is remarkable is that I can recall more than a dozen conversations with the people who invited me about why didn’t they invite Prof. x. from one of the many prestigious universities in the area and their answers were almost always the same... they would not come do it. So, I fear academics don’t want to speak to the public for all of reason Dr. McFaul laid out, but if they don’t... who will do it?