Middle East Scholarship and Engaging the Policy Community

Last month, Brookings scholars Tamara Cofman Wittes, director and senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings (CMEP), and Dan Byman, director of research and a senior fellow in CMEP, offered advice for producing policy relevant scholarship on the Middle East and articulated challenges for academics who seek to meaningfully engage in policy. The panel, a special session of the Middle East Studies Association’s annual meeting, was chaired by Marc Lynch of George Washington University and included Wittes and Byman alongside George Mason University’s Peter Mandaville (also a Brookings nonresident senior fellow) and Michelle Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The panelists began by sharing their personal experiences moving between careers in government, academia and think tanks before moving on to discuss how scholars of the Middle East can affect policy debates toward the region. To successfully navigate the policy world, Mandaville advised scholars to find how and where their academic labor fits into places where fruitful policy conversations are taking place. Lynch and Dunne urged scholars to specialize their expertise to position themselves as an authority when current events make that niche a policy priority.

All panelists agreed that academics must learn how to offer their knowledge in a way that is relevant to policymakers. Wittes emphasized the need for academics to study the policy process, and advocated taking an anthropological approach to understanding the framework and bureaucracy of the policy community in order to better translate academic research into actionable recommendations that can support good decision-making. When making recommendations, Dunne pressed academics to build a bridge from the current policy to the one they preferred by becoming acclimated to the history, calendar, and agenda of a specific policy area. Byman elaborated, suggesting scholars address the variables that policymakers can actually influence and carefully consider the instruments of national policy such as budgets and scheduling involved in implementation.

Byman recognized that many scholars alienate their key policy audiences by employing jargon and using a writing style that only specialists can understand. Dunne, Byman, and Lynch encouraged academics to maximize the policy reach of their research by publishing their work in multiple venues using the three-paper model: 1) one long analysis piece for general audiences, 2) one or two short and more narrowly-focused policy papers for specialized readers, and finally, 3) an op-ed or blog post for mass consumption. Warning against the pursuit of policy relevance over scholastic rigor, Lynch noted that policy briefs following the three-paper model come ready with substantial research to back their positions.

Both Mandaville and Wittes acknowledged a scholar’s time framework must be sped up to match the needs of policymakers. Academics are committed to the slow accumulation of generalizable knowledge, but policymakers need specific information in short order. When world events rapidly change to align with one’s specific area of expertise, they suggest engaging with policymakers before the high-level debate on the issue is over. Dunne added that directly reaching out to policymakers works best when you have recently returned from a research trip and have new, unique findings to offer that are relevant to their work.

For maximum influence on the policy debate, the panelists recommended directing ideas to specific parts of the bureaucracy that care about a given issue and seeking personal connections with the small network of decision makers working on that issue. Further policy legitimacy is reached through affiliations with respected institutions, such as think tanks.

Even without direct policymaker engagement, Wittes highlighted, academics can play an indirect role in shaping policy by influencing the way journalists and the public understand the context of the debate. Academics can frame the issues while public opinion is still being formed, shaping the environment in which policymakers and elected officials have to engage. Lynch added that as university professors, academics wield considerable influence over the next generation of policy leaders.

Citing numerous challenges, Mandaville and Byman encouraged academics to be realistic about the likelihood of failure to impact policy outcomes and to understand that, even if they do have an impact, it will be a modest one; they are not going to reprogram policy from the outside. Byman noted that many scholars fear they are compromising their academic integrity when their nuanced input and knowledge doesn’t appear to be reflected in actual policy. Wittes admitted that considerations such as personal or political futures are sometimes involved in policy decisions, but reminded the audience that policymakers are forced to choose between deeply imperfect options in a world of deeply imperfect information.