Political science and policy relevance

Dan Drezner shares a very interesting essay on political science and policy relevance, by Erik Gartzke.

In the policy relevance debate, political scientists are like Renfield, Dracula’s sidekick (or possibly like Thomas the Tank engine if children are present).  We really want to be “useful.”  I know of no other discipline that is so angst-ridden about mattering, even those that don’t matter in any concrete, “real world” sense.  Obviously, what makes us different from poets, particle physicists, or Professors of Pediatric Oncology is that we study politics and occasionally imagine that this gives us some special salience to that subject.  Policy makers, too, want us to be “relevant,” though I think what they have in mind differs in important respects.


What makes political science different from most other fields is that we have failed to resolve our conflict with our subject matter.  Poets report the human condition.  They do not expect to alter it, at least not permanently.  Physicians can make you better, so they do intervene, but their detachment is credible in the sense that they do not want to become illnesses.  No physicist I know of hankers to _be_ her subject matter, though of course we are all of us made of matter.  Political science alone wants to be different but engaged.

Imagine suggesting to a congressional committee that Congress should abandon the forecasting models of the OMB as esoteric and speculative.  Try to suggest to someone like Paul Pillar that he should hanker after the “good old days” of pre-GDP census taking and data collection.  Economics became policy relevant in the first sense because it developed tools that could help policy makers better connect their actions with outcomes.  These are not perfect, as recent events illustrate, but they work better than the old way of doing things (i.e. whatever we did last time, or holding one’s thumb up to the wind).  The problem is that political science does not yet have “killer apps” like GDP.  Optimists would say we are still working on these things.  Pessimists would say that they will never come.  I will not weigh in on that debate because in some sense it does not matter.

You can read the whole thing here.