How Political Science Became Irrelevant

Michael Desch:

In a 2008 speech to the Association of American Universities, the former Texas A&M University president and then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates declared that “we must again embrace eggheads and ideas.” He went on to recall the role of universities as “vital centers of new research” during the Cold War. The late Thomas Schelling would have agreed. The Harvard economist and Nobel laureate once described “a wholly unprecedented ‘demand’ for the results of theoretical work. … Unlike any other country … the United States had a government permeable not only by academic ideas but by academic people.”

Gates’s efforts to bridge the gap between Beltway and ivory tower came at a time when it was growing wider, and indeed, that gap has continued to grow in the years since. According to a Teaching, Research & International Policy Project survey, a regular poll of international-­relations scholars, very few believe they should not contribute to policy making in some way. Yet a majority also recognize that the state-of-the-art approaches of academic social science are precisely those approaches that policy makers find least helpful. A related poll of senior national-security decision-makers confirmed that, for the most part, academic social science is not giving them what they want.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that scholars increasingly privilege rigor over relevance. That has become strikingly apparent in the subfield of international security (the part of political science that once most successfully balanced those tensions), and has now fully permeated political science as a whole. This skewed set of intellectual priorities — and the field’s transition into a cult of the irrelevant — is the unintended result of disciplinary professionalization.