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Am I an academic?

By Sven Biscop (2014-07-06)

In Commentaries

In this Long Post, Sven Biscop discusses the nature of being an academic and a think-tanker whilst also offering advice on thinking and writing about political science and policy.

This commentary appeared on European Geostrategy on 6 July 2014.

(Photo credit: albertogp123, Flickr)


Am I an academic?

‘We have invited think-tankers and academics’. This sentence, often spoken by conference organisers, never fails to annoy me. Certainly if in the next sentence gratitude is then expressed for the think-tankers’ willingness to convey the academics’ ideas to policy-makers. Read: nothing very substantial is expected from the think-tankers themselves. Their job is just to translate academic brilliance into terms that even practitioners, who apparently are even lower in the academics’ esteem, can understand.

This is like saying that there are British and European participants. Now, some of the former may wish to deny it, and some of the latter may sometimes wish that they were not, but all British really are Europeans. Just like all think-tankers are academics, only of a peculiar kind. But then all academics are peculiar. Or, let us say, all academics have their own very personal view of the world and an ego strong enough to provide them with the urge to put that into writing and share it with the world. If they do not, they should have chosen a real job. (My father, who was an engineer, which is a very real job, would have approved of this sentence, I like to think).

There is but one species therefore, academics, some of whom dwell in universities and some in think-tanks. Some (though not many enough) even move in between both habitats, as I do. (We have the benefit of being able to say, when our friends and family doubt whether reading, writing, travelling and attending receptions is in fact a real job: I teach). All of them write. The difference is perhaps that the think-tanking kind more often than the university-dwellers know why they write any particular paper.

The So What Question

Too often it strikes me, after listening to a conference paper or reading a journal article in my field, that I did not learn much that I did not know already. Except how to phrase something into such impenetrable jargon that it totally obscures the fact that the paper is merely stating the obvious. At night it is dark and there is sun in the daytime. (Or, as I write this in Belgium, there may be sun in the daytime). To quote François Mitterrand: Et alors? So what? This is the ultimate think-tank question. (And very useful as well when drafted on the jury for a PhD that is far beyond one’s expertise – if nothing else, one can always ask that). Now that we have been provided with this information, whether it is new or not, what do we make of it? What do we do with it?

What defines an academic is the urge to write. The immodest conviction that one has something to say that is worth publicising. And yes, the desire to see one’s name in print – vanity is the engine of science. Vice versa therefore, if one has nothing to say, please do not write about it. It would make the selection of what to read from the mass of books and articles that reaches one daily so much easier. If there is no message, do not publish it.

In political science, the academic branch that like the majority of academics in the think-tanks I belong to, that message has to relate to the real world. The point of political science is to say something useful about politics and policy. Useful for those who engage in politics and make policy: citizens, officials, and politicians. In that intuition is crucial, science is somewhat of an art, but still l’art pour l’art cannot be the organising principle. Society does not fund think-tanks and political science departments at universities just so that political scientists can talk among themselves in a language that ensures that nobody else can follow. If a paper cannot be understood by the diplomat or officer, for example, who happens to be working on the issue that the academic writes about, it is a bad paper.

That does not mean that every publication has to finish with three recommendations or ten commandments. Innovative analysis is useful as such. Policy-makers can benefit from seeing an issue from a new angle, highlighting connections that they were not aware of, or a part of the history that they had forgotten (for institutional memory is as short as rotation of staff is frequent), all of which helps the understanding of what is happening and will thus improve the quality of policy-making.

Concrete recommendations are of course a purpose too. But academics should not become too immodest either. Rare are the cases in which an actual policy can be traced back to a specific suggestion by a specific academic. What rather happens is that if an idea resonates, it will start circulating (to which the author can contribute by speaking about it as often as he or she can) and become part of the context. Within that context, the decision-makers eventually decide, taking from it and combining the elements that they deem useful. Laws are like sausages, Bismarck is reputed to have said, the less you know about how they are made the better – dissecting the sausage to ascertain which bit derives from which academic is too distasteful to attempt.

In my own experience, the time that I had the most influence is also the time that I had the least influence. In early 2010, a Spanish EU Presidency non-paper about ‘permanent structured cooperation’, the new mechanism to stimulate European defence introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, was almost entirely copied from one of my publications on how to implement this ‘PESCO’. It was also entirely ignored, for in the end PESCO was simply never implemented at all. The reader will understand that I remain somewhat sceptical of all those colleagues for example who claim that they have really inspired the 2003 European Security Strategy. For one, if all of them were right, the Strategy would have to be a lot longer than it is to accommodate so much brilliance.

In Theory

Based on their analysis of concrete issues, academics also attempt to develop general theories. Here again, academics should take care not to make theory for theory’s sake. Theories, concepts, and definitions are not ends in themselves but tools, to serve the analysis of the real world. In other words, theory has to be useful just like any other product of political science. Usefulness requires elegance and clarity of expression. If a particular theory can only be understood by someone who has read all other theories on the same subject, that is, by someone who has nothing to do but dabble in theory, it definitely is not useful.

Furthermore, no single theory or concept can explain everything. It is great fun for example to invent labels, such as ‘normative power Europe’ or its opposite, ‘l’Europe puissance’ – I have tried to myself (and failed). If they catch on, their inventor’s wildest dream may be realised. Soon nobody will read the article in which you came up with it any longer. But forever more every use of your concept by every colleague will automatically trigger a bibliographic reference, and your citation record will explode. So far so good, as long as nobody begins to believe that any such theory or concept can do more than capture just one dimension of, in this case, Europe. For that belief quickly engenders the temptation to adjust reality so that no empirical material would distort the beautiful theory. (Which, I hasten to add, is an error more often made by overzealous disciples rather than by the originator of the concept).

Politics and policy are too complex to fit in a single explanation. Often indeed there is no big explanation, and developments result from incompetence and improvisation. Nevertheless, a combination of theories and concepts can help to understand and explain what is happening and to formulate recommendations on how to deal with it. Rarely however can they predict what will happen. But political scientists can help to recommend strategies that act as frameworks to assist the policy-maker to react to the unpredictable, by identifying what is vital and what is not.

Because of their respective employers’ expectations, university-based academics usually devote more time to the development of the tool, i.e. theory, than colleagues in the think-tanks. In the application of the tool, the latter will probably attempt more than the former not only to analyse and to understand but also to formulate recommendations. When it comes to setting the research agenda, choosing which area of politics or policy to analyse, universities leave the academic more freedom of choice than think-tanks, although the need to obtain project-based funding will be an important motivation here too. Think-tanks have to direct their research towards the areas of most interest to their funder. That funder (which, for European think-tanks, often is government) may have a political agenda to which the think-tank has to subscribe. But these are broad agendas which do not detract from the academic freedom, for example to promote European integration. If the political agenda goes further, for example to promote the Christian-democratic view of European integration or to stimulate the acquisition of the Rafale fighter aircraft, we are no longer talking about a think-tank, but about a lobbyist or a party research service.

Rather than an absolute division of labour and method between universities and think-tanks, all of this is a matter of degree. Essentially university-based academics and think-tanking academics (including those who used to be practitioners) do the same thing: producing a message that is of use for politics and policy, in a spirit of complete intellectual freedom, and living up to rigorous scientific standards.

Tittle-Tattle over a Glass of Wine

University professors and think-tankers would do well to continuously interact with each other therefore. The former should consider to once in a while distil a shorter policy paper from a learned journal article, in order to more easily reach an audience of practitioners. The latter should from time to time compile the findings of some of their short-term policy papers and produce journals and books that have a much longer shelf-live. The former should regularly participate in policy seminars, to ensure that they remain in touch with the world that they are studying. The latter should occasionally attend scientific conferences to make sure that they keep abreast of scientific developments in their field.

In fact, attending one of the big academic conferences is not that different from what think-tankers do every day. At an academic festival such as the annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), where thousands of academics mingle, the key thing is to have a lunch and a dinner appointment every day. Time allowing, one can attend the odd panel in between, but networking is the added value of such events. This is exactly how an academic, whether from a think-tank or a university, can collect the most insights about his object of study: talking with practitioners over lunch or dinner or at receptions. Or even just over a cup of coffee, for the more ascetic among us, but in any case in an informal setting. Admittedly, such tittle-tattle, as the editor of a special issue (and a close friend) once dubbed the sources of my submission, is not easy to include in the references of one’s paper. But it is often much more productive than a formal interview.

Not every statement in every paper can be based on another written source anyway. If it is not allowed to write something down unless it has been written before, political science is hardly going to progress. The real added value of a paper will always be the author’s personal opinion – his message. An academic should never hesitate therefore and use his liberty to engage in franc-parler to the utmost. Many official documents are bland enough – there is no reason for us academics to use stale language as well. Why should one read between the lines of an academic paper? Just say things as they are, because you have the unique freedom to do so.

Official documents are of course an important source of information. But one should take care not to over-interpret them. True, when they are being negotiated, every point and comma counts. But two years later, nearly all officials involved in the drafting will have moved on to another post, often in another country or another organisation. Those who succeeded them will have no idea why this particular comma is indeed a comma and not a semi-colon. An academic’s own output consists mostly of his or her writings. Quite understandably one hopes, against better knowledge, that writings can change the world. Alas, it is not because the European Security Strategy, the subject of much of my own work, says something, that this is how things really are. There was much rejoicing in certain circles when the 2008 Report on the Implementation of the Strategy referred to the notion of human security. But I distinctly remember a Commission official, who had pushed for this, replying to me: ‘Well, now that it is in there, we better come up with a definition of what we mean by it’.

Once again, speaking with practitioners is indispensable to get as a complete a picture as possible and to ensure that one does not stray too far from reality. An academic’s job is to think outside the box, to link seemingly disparate dimensions and facts, and to be creative and innovative – but these are not synonyms for unrealistic. Strategy can be daring, and strategy must determine the allocation of the means – but its formulation will be influenced by the knowledge of which means can realistically be made available, and of the obstacles to be overcome. To be useful to policy-makers an academic must be a pragmatic idealist: he or she needs to have a concept of the big ideal, in order to give a sense of where to go, in the full knowledge that one will reach there by incremental, pragmatic steps.

Political science cannot function in splendid isolation, without permanent interaction with the people who operate in the areas that it studies. Or one will end up in the position of the colleague who ‘proved’ in her presentation at a big conference that the EU’s European Security and Defence College did not exist – at a moment when I had been lecturing for it for three years. My point in the ensuing Q&A – ‘I teach, therefore it is’ – was not well-received, but the embarrassment was perfectly avoidable.


Am I an academic? Yes – and I would not want to be anything else. Given that it is unlikely that the people will call on me to become the High Representative for EU foreign policy.

Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop greatly enjoys teaching at Ghent University and the College of Europe, while directing the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations.


The copyright of this commentary belongs to the Egmont Institute. It can be quoted or republished freely, as long as the original source is mentioned.