‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement 

Author: SCGA
An article from SCGA editorial team. 

‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement

Organisers: SCGA and CeSeR Centre for Security Research

On 12 January 2023, SCGA co-sponsored a day long workshop on engagement between academia and policymaking and the benefits and challenges of policy-relevant research. This workshop was part of the ISA in the World series of similar events being held across the International Studies Association’s (ISA) global membership.  These series promote discussion of how researchers engage (or not) with policymaking in different local contexts around the world.  As one of the ISA VPs this year and co-Director of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs (SCGA), Julie Kaarbo (Edinburgh) co-organised the workshop with Maggie Dwyer (Edinburgh), co-Director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Security Research (CeSeR).  The workshop was funded by ISA, SCGA, and CeSeR. 

Logo image for the Scottish Council on Global Affairs

Professor James Goldgeier (American University) kicked off the workshop with lessons learned from the Bridging the Gap Project,.  Drawing on his recent article (with Naazneen Barma) ‘How Not to Bridge the Gap in International Relations’, Professor Goldgeier discussed:

  • the value of and risks to academic researchers engaging with policy-making communities; 
  • paths of influence, (including supplying ‘facts’, changing conceptions and serving time in government fellowships); 
  • targets of influence; 
  • integrity issues; 
  • and the inclusiveness of the policymaker-academic relationship.  

Following the presentation, there was a wide-ranging discussion on:

  • differences in national contexts; 
  • how much theoretical and methodological background should be communicated by academics (not much!); 
  • engagement on politically polarised issues and in contexts where expertise is not valued; 
  • social media as a tool of engagement; 
  • and the use of academics by some politicians to ‘legitimise’ their positions. 

In the afternoon, two panels led to further discussion of these topics.  In the first panel, Mateja Peter (University of St Andrews), Claire Duncanson (University of Edinburgh), Phillips O’Brien (University of St Andrews), Sara Dorman (University of Edinburgh) and Rhys Crilley (University of Glasgow) presented on practical issues of research engagement.  They shared stories from their own experiences and lessons learned, including:

  • write short, very focused papers (with bullet points and visuals) in the first pitch (followed up by deeper analysis in later stages); 
  • build long-term relationships with policymakers and analysts, involving more conversation than presentation; 
  • focus on early career analysts and ‘lower-level’ policy-makers; 
  • tensions between being practical yet ambitious; 
  • the need to publicise your own research and initiate contact with policymakers; 
  • be prepared to apply your past research to new events; 
  • focus on policy implications rather than policy suggestions; 
  • personal motivations for pursuing engagement with policies and policymaking communities. 
Logo image for the Scottish Council on Global Affairs

The second panel was chaired by Stephen Gethins (University of St Andrews and former MP) and included presentations on ‘what do policy-makers want from international relations research and how do they want it’?  The panellists were Leslie Mariot (former UK diplomat with many posts, including UK Permanent Representative to NATO and Ambassador to Norway), Scott Wightman (Director for External Affairs, Scottish Government; former diplomat in the UK Government with posts including British High Commissioner to Singapore and UK Ambassador to the Republic of Korea), Naomi McAuliffe (Scotland Program Director, Amnesty International) and Nicholas Taylor (Senior Principal Analyst, UK Ministry of Defence, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory).  The panellists reinforced the points made earlier in the day and also emphasised: 

  • the importance of being confident in interactions with policymaking communities; 
  • the information-rich but time-poor and uncertain environment in which policymakers operate; 
  • mental frameworks and policy consequences are as important (or more important) than policy recommendations; 
  • research must be high quality; 
  • international dimensions of domestic policies are also of interest to policymakers; 
  • work is welcome on both ‘crisis’ situations and under-researched, less salient topics; 
  • collaboration between academics and the policymaking community (including NGOs) is mutually beneficial but must be carefully designed given different motives; 
  • the use of social media, networks, news outlets, some journals, blogs and centres (like SCGA) to find academics and their research.

Participants in the workshop were international relations, African Studies, and psychology researchers from the University of Dundee, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Glasgow, the University of St Andrews, and the University of Edinburgh.   

For SCGA, CeSeR, and ISA, this workshop was an important event bringing Scotland-based international relations researchers together and further conversations on the academic policy-making relationship in the Scottish IR community. 

Juliet Kaarbo, SCGA Co-Director & Maggie Dwyer, CeSeR Co-Director 

SCGA & CeSaR event: ‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement
SCGA & CeSaR event: ‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement
SCGA & CeSaR event: ‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement
SCGA & CeSaR event: ‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement
SCGA & CeSaR event: ‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement
SCGA & CeSaR event: ‘ISA in the World’ Workshop on Academic-Policy Engagement
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