At the Center of Political Workings

, by Lanny Martin - Professore Ordinario, Dipartimento di Scienze sociali e politiche
From the World Bank to Obama and Trudeau: how political science research impacts on the decisions of governments and institutions all over the world

How much influence does political science research really have on the major decisions of politicians and other important policy actors? Over the past several decades, perhaps the most common response to this question-from all sides involved-has been "not very much." On the one hand, political scientists, who certainly want their work to be influential in the public sphere, also want it to be published in top peer-reviewed outlets. And as the discipline has matured as a science, and has thus become more specialized, publication incentives have argued for producing ever more rigorous studies with an ever more limited theoretical and empirical scope. A natural, and unfortunate, side effect of this trend has been the diminishing engagement of political actors with cutting-edge political science research, as they have been either unable, or unwilling, to seriously inspect and consider complex arguments, concepts, and findings from the discipline. Witness the current US Supreme Court case on partisan gerrymandering, in which, during oral arguments, Chief Justice Roberts stridently dismissed a measure used in political science to assess how electoral district maps favor one party over another (the partisan "efficiency gap") as no more than "sociological gobbledygook."

At least two recent trends, however, suggest that political science is becoming (or, at least, is poised to become) more relevant to the decisions taken by policymakers. First, key nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, whose suggestions and advice governments often follow, increasingly rely on political science research to guide their policy recommendations. For example, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) has significantly stepped up its commitment in recent years to reduce poverty in low- and middle-income countries. It has pointed out in its policy reports that achieving that goal requires significant reforms in key economic and social sectors, and that implementing such reforms requires knowledge of how domestic political institutions interact with the interests of competing domestic coalitions to affect policy. Thus, in making its policy recommendations, IBRD appropriately turned to the voluminous political science literature in this area, particularly to studies on institutional design, distributive politics, and citizen dissent.

Similarly, studies from World Bank and other institutions have cited political science research in their reports on reducing corruption in both democratic and authoritarian regimes, and on assessing whether foreign aid actually helps developing nations or harms them by providing a "lifeline" to corrupt administrations. On occasion, high-level politicians have relied more directly on political science research. As argued by Professor Marc Lynch in a 2016 Washington Post contribution, for example, President Obama's policy of not arming Syrian rebels was, purportedly, partly informed by the political science literature on civil wars, which has shown that supplying external support to rebel groups typically serves only to lengthen and intensify conflict, particularly when those groups have markedly different post-conflict goals. In the 2015 Canadian parliamentary elections, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau made a campaign promise (which, notably, he has not kept) to change his country's electoral rules from a first-past-the-post system to an instant-runoff system, whereby voters get to rank candidates in descending order of preference. His proposal, aimed at reducing what he perceived as excessive party polarization in Canadian politics, explicitly referenced political science work that argues that preferential voting systems tend to favor the selection of centrist candidates who can "work across the aisle."

A second favorable trend is that political scientists have generally become much more adept at distilling their research to the general public. In particular, the rise of social media and the blogosphere has had a profound impact on enabling and encouraging political scientists to present their work in a more accessible way. Initially, such efforts were very decentralized and sporadic; nowadays, there are numerous venues that regularly host blogs from political scientists on major events and issues of the day. Early exemplars included FiveThirtyEight (founded in 2008), a forum for political scientists who use extensive polling and statistical analysis to make predictions about US elections and policy change, and The Monkey Cage (founded in 2007), which was created with the express mission of helping policymakers and the public understand how political science research speaks to their decisions and debates. The rapid success and popularity of these sites influenced large mainstream outlets to take notice: The New York Times formed a partnership with FiveThirtyEight in 2010, and the Washington Post partnered with The Monkey Cage in 2013. Although it remains to be seen whether such communication efforts by scholars will have a direct effect on global policy decisions, it is unquestionably the case that political scientists now have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the contours of public debate. This bodes well not only for the discipline, in its continuing quest for relevance, but for all citizens who desire informed civic discussion and public policies grounded in sound academic research.

Read more about this topic:
The Theory of Secession. Article by Massimo Morelli
The New Silk Road Can Be Understood by Looking at the Past. Article by Andrea Colli
Why the Multinationals that Influence the World Are Born
Behind Western Intervention in the Fall of Regimes
In Europe the obstacle is not culture
How a Sentence Can Affect International Agreements