Funder Aims to Address the Disconnect Between Research and Effective Policy

Carnegie Corporation of New York’s senior program director talks about ‘Bridging the Gap’

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Funder Aims to Address the Disconnect Between Research and Effective Policy

Bridging the Gap, part of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s International Peace and Security grantmaking program, supports international relations scholars in their efforts to effectively conduct and communicate research that can be useful to policymakers, practitioners, and the broader public. In doing so, the program aims to narrow the gap between researchers and policymakers in high-stakes political and diplomatic decisions.

Stephen Del Rosso is senior program director for international peace and security at Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grantmaking foundation dedicated to the advancement of democracy, education, and international peace. Among his other responsibilities, Del Rosso oversees Bridging the Gap and participates in the Transforming Evidence Funders Network (TEFN), which convenes public and private funders who are driving change in how evidence is generated, mobilized, and used.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Stephen Del Rosso
Courtesy of Stephen Del Rosso

Q: Tell us how Bridging the Gap got started.

A: Carnegie Corporation of New York’s International Peace and Security program deals with a broad range of issues, from nuclear security to peace building in Africa, to relations with Russia and China, among others.

The foundation supports a lot of academic research in these areas. We saw that too much of this research was sitting unread on bookshelves. For various reasons, it was not getting to the attention of policymakers who might find it useful in dealing with a growing roster of international challenges. So, our initial grant to address this issue was made in 2005 to what became the Bridging the Gap Project, a multi-university effort now based at the University of Denver, designed to connect scholarship and policy on international issues. It was inspired by the deceptively simple notion that policy could be better if policymakers were better informed. The broader Bridging the Gap grantmaking subprogram that has funded 17 additional projects on this theme over almost two decades took its name from this original and still-operating project.

Q: And how have you approached putting that “deceptively simple notion” into practice?

A: We’ve primarily focused on the academic side of the gap between research and policy: strengthening the capacity of scholars to engage with the policy community; broadening the dissemination of scholarly research relevant to policymaking; and encouraging changes in academic incentive structures favoring policy scholarship and engagement.

Q: How do you approach the gap between research and policy, especially in a thorny and politically charged field such as international peace and security?

A: The evaluative metrics in philanthropy, especially in measuring research impact, remain underdeveloped. There are so many causal factors that go into a policy, and the path between idea and policy is nonlinear. So, in much of the research we support we look at contribution, not attribution: identifying trace elements in policy that we can plausibly link back to some of the ideas that our grantees developed.

At the end of the day, if our research can provide a mental road map or conceptual framework for policymakers and help shape the policy debate—that, in itself, I think, is a service.

Q: What specific strategies do you use to support faculty who want to engage more in policy work?

A: There’s a training element: We want to develop the skills, the contacts, and the awareness—among early-career academics in particular—to encourage and facilitate the application of their research and expertise to policy discourse. One example that is part of the original Bridging the Gap project is the International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI), a weeklong training exercise for policy-oriented junior to midlevel faculty involving media training and panels with policymakers, bloggers, podcasters, and newspaper editors. The project also has an arrangement with Oxford University Press to publish policy-relevant research books that inform policymakers and the public, as well as help advance faculty’s promotion and tenure aspirations.

Another training program is the International Policy Scholars Consortium and Network (IPSCON), based at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, that convenes senior faculty from a dozen universities, most of whom have experience in the policy realm, with a cohort of Ph.D.s for discussions and scenario exercises about how the policy process works. Many of the alumni of this project have, not surprisingly, ended up in high positions in government—and point to the way it helped them understand the complexities of statecraft.

Other strategies include supporting media platforms, like the Monkey Cage and The Conversation, that help translate academic insights for broader audiences, and providing faculty members with opportunities to gain experience in government through the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars. And to help faculty, as well as policymakers, better understand the nature and extent of the academic-policy gap, we have supported survey and analysis work at the University of Notre Dame and the College of William & Mary.

Q: Alumni connections are important with all these programs, one would imagine.

A: Yes. Interaction and personal connections can pay off in ways that evaluative metrics can’t really capture. Each alum has a story about how the program, the people they met, the mentoring they got from senior academics and policy officials really assisted them. And the alumni are now populating hiring, tenure, and promotion committees, so as a generational undertaking, we’re seeing payoff in shifting the academic research culture.

And these programs don’t just benefit the individual who goes into the government or the policy that individual informs. When they come back into the academy, they’re better teachers. They have a real-world perspective; they really know how the sausage is made. It enriches their teaching, and therefore the students they teach.

Q: In addition to supporting individual researchers’ policy engagement, you’ve also worked to shift the structure and culture of academic institutions to better support policy-targeted research or public scholarship. What has your approach been there?

A: A number of years ago, we issued a request for proposal to professional schools of international affairs that should be at the forefront of promoting policy-relevant research and engagement. The hiring, promotion, and tenure processes at most of these schools are primarily based on disciplinary criteria, such as a publishing record in the leading scholarly journals or the prestigious university presses, and outside letters of recommendation—not from a policymaker, but from a highly regarded senior academic. If you happen to have a policy bent or relevant nonacademic experience, that seemed to count far less in decisions being made about your career trajectory.

But most students at these schools don’t go into the academy. They’re going into the real world. It’s good to hire and promote faculty who have published several books and have letters from disciplinary greats, but it’s also good to include some policy criteria in the equation. It benefits the students who will primarily work in that policy realm.

We encouraged the schools we were funding to reassess their hiring, promotion, and tenure processes to take into account policy-relevant activities and, where possible, allow time for untenured junior faculty to take periods immersed in policy work. Most of these funded schools were able to make these adjustments.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish, in terms of supporting policy-relevant research and broadening academic incentives, by working with funders in other fields through the Transforming Evidence Funders Network?

A: It’s been rewarding for me to recognize that all the funders involved share this challenge of more closely connecting research, policy, and practice. For years I thought I was wandering in the wilderness by myself. And then I stumbled upon TEFN, where I found my soulmates­—other funders who are dealing with the gap between research and policy in widely different and diverse areas.

By joining forces and joining funding, we can try to make some systemic changes. We’re able to share not only the diagnosis of the problem but how we might address it—with the hope that there’s some economy of scale or shared learning of best practices. Just getting foundations to row in the same direction is challenging, but now’s the time.

Q: Why is Bridging the Gap a priority at Carnegie Corporation of New York?

A: We’ve been at this for a while—for almost two decades. The demand for the training projects we support still exists. Applications are going up every year. While there has been progress in bridging the academic-policy gap during this period, challenges remain, especially in an era in which academic incentive structures have not kept pace with the increasing interest, especially among early-career scholars, in addressing real-world problems. In some of the flagship projects we support, the original leaders and founders have passed the baton to a new generation, which is taking leadership with a real emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion and bringing in a range of perspectives that have been traditionally underrepresented in the international relations field.

Q: When you look at the broader field of research and policy, what do you see?

A: We’re in an age of skepticism about authoritative scholarship and facts. And there’s this growing disconnect between academic work and the way it’s perceived in the world: polarization on steroids, along with an erosion of trust in the intellectual gatekeepers and authoritative figures.

This is the context now, and it’s amplifying the nature of the challenge for scholars—however expert or well-versed in communicating—to have their work resonate. So, I’m hoping that getting involved with TEFN will inspire our work at the foundation to continue making worthwhile investments both to support scholarly research and to keep building those bridges to and from the policy world.

Support for the evidence project and its Transforming Evidence Funders Network is provided in part by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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