On 12 June 2017, I was invited, along with about 70 other academics, foreign and security policy experts, think tank staff and policy makers to a ‘high level’ Jean Monnet thematic seminar on the “EU’s Global Strategy – From Vision to Action”. This was organised by the EU Commission’s DG Education and Culture and the European External Action Service in Brussels. The brief for the meeting was to discuss and gain insights from a variety of actors with a view to coming up with concrete proposals and recommendations to the European Commission and European External Action Service on how the ambitions behind the EU Global Strategy might be realised. I was specifically asked to make a presentation on the relationship between academia and EU foreign policy makers and how that might strengthen/improve policy making. While the presentation was not based on a formal paper and was designed more to provoke a conversation in the room, I was asked to write it up for the purposes of a conference report. The following results:
The question posed at this panel is how we – as scholars of the EU – can best advise practitioners and policy makers. The answer is as a simple as it is challenging: through high quality research. There is nothing as significant and as unique that academics bring to the policy table. Research that addresses critical challenges, that interrogates policy choices, that identifies new horizons and opportunities is urgently needed and highly valued. In the language of management, that is the scholar’s Unique Selling Point (USP) and our critical added value.
That contribution however is subject to two conditions; maintaining critical distance and active engagement. Jean Monnet scholars cannot and should not be defined as part of ‘Team EU’. For our research to be substantive, credible and serious we must always prioritise – to the greatest extent possible – our critical objectivity. To that end, our goal must be to tell policy makers what they need to hear – not what they want to hear. Our own challenge is to avoid the trap of the golden cage, in which we are granted precious and seductive ‘access’ to the policy world and trade-in or blunt our critical analysis in return. In some informal language surrounding this event I have heard reference to what scholars can do to ‘support’ the Commission or the External Action Service. That is not our role or our best contribution to the wider societies of which we are a part and to which we owe accountability.
Second, however, policy makers have every right to hold our feet to the flames of their reality. Scholars have a weakness for parsimony, ideal types and simplified models of human behaviour. The policy maker has no such luxury. For them, every choice has consequences and almost every consequence has an adverse impact or imposes a cost somewhere else. In academia too we tend to guard our own disciplinary patch and insist on the unique methods and concepts with which we are familiar and which dominate our respective fields. Again, for policy makers, such siloed approaches are not appropriate. Policy makers have every right, indeed the responsibility, to insist that in our research we address tough questions in all their complexity and that we fully interrogate each and every potential policy choice.
The second question posed for this panel was what the External Action Service and the Commission might do to facilitate greater interaction between the academic and policy worlds. Above all else, the engagement of policymakers in research projects is key. As, for example, in the H2020-funded GLOBUS project (Reconsidering European Contributions to Global Justice) the participation of policy makers and practitioners is critical to the research project – not simply as objects of research but as active partners in the research process and as a sounding board for policy-related research findings. In that capacity their contribution can be invaluable, in, for example, quickly pointing to missing or poorly weighted variables and in identifying the informal norms that often cut across formal, documented practice.
Policy makers can also engage more broadly in the scholarly community. How about attending/participating on a more regular and perhaps even structured basis in the wide range of professional academic conferences, workshops and seminars across the disciplinary spectrum? Individual and small groups of scholars might also be called upon to engage in thematic seminars and workshops designed by policy makers to address specific questions or challenges. There is also the possibility of funding dedicated, even multi-annual research projects, again with specific policy questions to be addressed therein. Remember, that for scholars, access and engagement is its own currency and has high value. Compared with expensive consultancy companies (who will normally outsource much research to academics anyway) scholars are also inexpensive and great value for money!
One small sidebar here is also not to rely entirely on the grey heads in the academic community. Much of the most exciting and cutting edge research is being conducted by early to mid-career academics. One should also not underestimate the potential contribution or retired or ’emeritus’ colleagues with a lifetime of experience and engagement and the ambition to continue to contribute to their communities.
Policy makers might also consider inviting scholars into their world in a more structured way. This can be accomplished directly through the aforementioned funding of specific research or researchers (PhDs, postdocs, or inter-institutional research clusters) or more indirectly through the support of short or longer term fellowships, with junior or more senior scholars working alongside policy makers on a specific question or project – or simply engaged within a thematic working cluster. More informally, sections or thematic divisions of the Commission or the EAS might also organise their own policy planning or reflection days and simply invite a small number of scholars to come in and share the latest findings and debates from research in their cognate areas.
Thirdly, of course, the Commission and the External Action Service might also consider ways to get practitioners out into the scholarly community. The models of ‘practitioner in residence’ for example are well established in North America and are a well known opportunity for such practitioners to share their unique expertise with the next generation of citizens, scholars and policy makers. Such structures can also offer the opportunity for policy makers to reflect on their own experience and thereby to produce rich scholarly analyses of that experience through high quality, researched articles and monographs. More formally still, practitioners might also benefit from specific educational and training programmes, before or after major professional moves or postings. These can bring together both substantive disciplinary inputs as well as professional development opportunities. Universities are ideally suited to the provision of tailored programmes which can integrate contributions from the humanities (such as language acquisition/cultural awareness), the social sciences, business, management and the law.
In sum, the fruit of greater and more structured interaction between the academy and the policy world holds huge promise. While maintaining critical distance, we can come much closer to delivering our societies better informed, more effective and more responsive and just policy outcomes.