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Who’s afraid of quantitative methods of analysis? How we train our foreign policy professionals

My friend and colleague, Professor Erik Voeten, has an excellent post over at The Monkey Cage about the relationship between political science scholarship and foreign-policy making. He writes:

International relations, and especially (inter)national security, is the subfield of political science where the gap between policy makers and academics is most frequently decried. This is not because political science research on security is less policy relevant than in other subfields. Quite the contrary, it is because political science rather than law or economics is the dominant discipline in which policy makers have traditionally been trained. In short: there is more at stake.Over at the National Interest, Justin Logan and Paul Pillar play the “blame game,” with Logan arguing that the onus is on policy makers to take more of an interest in academic research and Pillar blaming academia. Like Dan Drezner, I have some sympathies with both sides of the argument. I agree with Pillar that the incentives in the academy for policy relevant research are poor but Logan makes some good points about the foreign policy establishment:

[..] the idea that academic work is just too hard for busy DC policymakers to understand is a bizarre defense of the Beltway. We expect, rightly, Timothy Geithner to be up to speed on important work being published in the economics journals, and Antonin Scalia to be able to make his way through law review articles. I challenge the reader to leaf through the most prominent economics journals without finding challenging methodologies or the leading law reviews without finding elaborate theories. So why should the DC foreign policy establishment get a pass on IR scholarship because it’s too hard?

I understand complaints that much IR scholarship does not seem relevant to the kind of questions policy-makers are struggling with. Yet, incessant complaints about the rigor or difficulty of scholarly work reveal more about policy-makers than about academia. IR theory is for the most part not very hard to understand for a reasonably well-trained individual. The possible exception is game-theoretical work, which constitutes only a small percentage of IR scholarship. My bigger worry is that foreign policy decision makers are avoiding any research using quantitative methods even when it is relevant to their policy area. There is a real issue with training here. My employer, Georgetown’s school of foreign service, at least requires one quantitative methods class for masters students (none for undergrads). Many other schools have no methods requirement at all. By comparison, Georgetown’s public policy school requires three methods classes. It is not obvious to me why those involved in foreign policy-making require less methods training for their daily work. The consequence is, however, that we have a foreign policy establishment that is ill-equipped to analyze the daily stream of quantitative data (e.g. polls, risk ratings), evaluate the impact of policy initiatives, and scrutinize academic research. (emphasis added)

As the director of the masters program that Erik mentions (the Master of Science in Foreign Service program– MSFS), I know the importance of preparing future policy makers to use and understand quantitative methods of analysis. In meetings that we have with employers, I frequently hear them echoing the importance of analyzing quantitative data.  Indeed, for the past several years, we have been making a number of changes in the curriculum to enhance the teaching of quantitative methods.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.