Rachel M. Gisselquist
Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a scathing critique of the role of academics in public debate. 'Professors, We Need You!' he moaned, noting that 'some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don't matter in today's great debates'. He criticized in particular the practical irrelevance of the topics studied by many academics, the use of arcane quantitative models and theoretical constructs, and the 'turgid prose'.
Kristof was particularly critical of my field--political science--noting that it 'seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide'. (Interestingly, he was less critical of economics--which, with all due respect to my colleagues, is at least as guilty of studying 'irrelevant' topics, using arcane quantitative models and constructs, and bad writing.)
The academic blogosphere quickly lit up in response. One of my favorites is by Erik Voeten and published in the 'The Monkey Cage', a blog on political science research that now appears in the Washington Post, surely an example of the type of engaged academia Kristof is missing: 'Dear Nicholas Kristof, We are Right Here!'
Dear Mr. Kristof, We are right here, too! As most WIDERAngle readers know, UNU-WIDER works on policy-relevant questions affecting the living conditions of the world's poorest people, providing a global forum for professional interaction by scholars and practitioners. PhDs and university faculty from our network in fact author most of our publications. The sort of public engagement that Kristof calls for was also explicitly part of our last research programme, 'ReCom-Research and Communication on Foreign Aid' (2011-2013). We think that strengthening the relationship between research and policy in development is important and, collectively, we have spent a lot of time wrestling with how to make it better.
UNU-WIDER's network has traditionally been dominated by economists, but clearly major issues in contemporary development policy--such as fragility, governance, inequality, peace and security--beg for political analysis, and this is reflected in UNU-WIDER's current work. A number of political science faculty members have contributed to recent UNU-WIDER studies, alongside colleagues from economics and other disciplines. Democratic Trajectories in Africa: Unravelling the Impact of Foreign Aid, an edited...