Policy Relevance and the Iran Deal

I just got back from a short trip to Washington, D.C., where I was reminded of an enduring debate among political scientists and policy makers: the relevance (or lack thereof) of political science to policy. I’m not going to rehash the most recent discussions, but I do believe that political scientists can and should strive to provide guidance to policy makers. My general impression, however, is that policy makers rarely listen to us on the big issues. I recognize that my opinion may be biased—perhaps what I really feel is, “policy makers don’t always do what I think they should be doing.” But I will admit I find it annoying that academics are admonished for not being policy-relevant when I know plenty of scholars who are working on important projects with policy relevance.

In this vein, I was very excited to learn that a prominent group of international relations professors recently took out an ad in the New York Times to argue that the recent nuclear agreement with Iran “Is in America’s national interest” and should be supported as the best option available for ensuring American security.  I agree with all of the provisions of their argument: the deal is not perfect, but jettisoning it would likely push the United States down a path to another ridiculously costly, wasteful, and unnecessary war in the Middle East.

What’s so interesting about this particular group of scholars is that they also sponsored a similar ad in September 2002 warning that war with Iraq would not be in the interest of the United States.  We know now that the policy makers chose to ignore the advice of the most prominent members of the international relations community in 2003; let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake in 2015. Perhaps the “problem” with political science and policy relevance is not that political scientists work on irrelevant topics, but that policy makers want academics to tell them what they already believe and want to hear.