What is Policy Relevance?

Attempts to bridge the gap between academia and the real world, especially in the area of international relations, have accelerated over the last few years. There are several initiatives ongoing, including the Bridging the Gap project, the Tobin Project, the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations (TRIP), and a variety of others. The Bridging the Gap project, for example, trains academics how to ask policy relevant questions and write for public policy audiences. To complement these efforts, our understanding of what policy relevance “is” needs improving. In particular, distinguishing between research with significance for policy and research that is policy actionable — promoting realistic policy actions — can bring analytical clarity to the concept of policy relevance and help enhance efforts to bridge the gap.

A fear that academia is becoming more irrelevant drives these efforts to bridge the gap. From former MacArthur President Robert Gallucci’s call for more relevance to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s fear that academic insights are not useful for the real world to writing by Peter Campbell and Michael Desch, Steve Van Evera, and Jim Steinberg and Frank Gavin, along with others, there is a sense that academics are not doing enough. On the other hand, the information age has been a game changer in the ability of academics to communicate directly with the policy world, and increasingly in their willingness as well. Just in the area of international relations, from blogs run by academics (e.g. Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Duck of Minerva, Political Violence at a Glance,Lawfare, and others) to social media avenues such as Twitter to media outlets that consistently publish academics with policy insights (e.g. War on the RocksForeign Policy, and Defense One), academics have a greater number of venues than ever to publish policy-relevant insights based on their scholarship. Anecdotally, it seems easier to take advantage of the opportunity than ever.

Yet, if improving policy relevance in academia, as well as the ability of the policy world to consume academic research (if presented correctly), is an important goal, it makes the question of what exactly policy relevance “is” a vital one. Policy relevance often seems to be in the eyes of the beholder. A lack of precision in what policy relevance is, however, can encourage thinking about the issue that does not accurately capture reality, and leads to confusion when different people use the term in different ways.

One way forward is to distinguish between four key concepts that seem at the core of discussions of policy relevance. What follows separates the components of policy relevance from the quality of the work itself, e.g. whether it holds together intellectually. While that is a crucial consideration for evaluating the overall utility of any piece, this is an attempt to drill down on the concept of policy relevance itself.

Policy significance: Policy significance, most simply, is research that has implications for the policy world…

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