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OAS Roundtable Debated Importance of Effective Links between Academics and Politics

  November 6, 2014

The Organization of American States (OAS) today held its sixty-second Policy Roundtable to debate the need for and the difficulties of a fluid and productive relationship between the worlds of academia and politics. Under the title “Scholars, Policymakers and International Affairs: Finding Common Cause,” participants analyzed the book by the same name by Abraham Lowenthal and Mariano Bertucci and shared some of its conclusions.

The Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, delivered the opening remarks of the debate, which included the participation of Lowenthal himself, Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California; Fred Bergsten, Senior Fellow and Director Emeritus of the Peterson Institute for International Economics; and Ambassador Thomas Shannon, Counselor at the U.S. Department of State. The Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Cynthia J. Arnson, moderated the discussion, while the Secretary of Political Affairs of the OAS, Kevin Casas-Zamora, presented the participants.

Introducing the central theme of the event, Secretary General Insulza said that "In the foreign policy arena, as perhaps is true in any other policy fields, the relationship between academia and policymakers has been, and should be a close and symbiotic one." He added the debate began when the idea of a disconnect between both sectors was popularized, following reflections from the academic Stanley Hoffmann, who said that there was a separation between what is taught in the university and what is done in government.

The leader of the hemispheric Organization said that, from his perspective, the relationship between academia and government in Latin America is close, "and I believe this has to do with the improvement in the quality of governance that we have seen in recent years, especially in the economic sector, not only in the foreign policy sector," he said. "In general, we can say that it is possible to reduce the gap between the two," he continued, although this requires overcoming a challenge: "regardless of how overwhelmingly evident the efficiency of a policy to tackle an international challenges may be, it will not translate into foreign policy automatically." As an example he cited the case of the debate on drug policy, which has traditionally been evidence of this ambivalence.

In conclusion, the Secretary General affirmed that "even though scholars may value theory while policymakers value more pragmatic and time-sensitive policy solutions, we all agree that a stronger relationship between academics and policymakers would be beneficial" and encouraged the debate "on how we can bridge the world of ‘ideas’ with the ‘real’ world."

The opinion of the experts

During the conversation, the panelists agreed on the difficulty of finding common ground between researchers and those responsible for making decisions in public policy, either for lack of time to study or due to the origin and nature of two visions: theory and practice.

Abraham Lowenthal said that one of his main motivations is to improve the quality of policy, "working on improving communication and understanding between academics and politicians." In this regard, he noted the need for scholars to see first-hand the "real world," and said he thought universities should review their career policies and allow aspiring academics to spend significant periods serving public institutions.

Professor Lowenthal explained that to bring the two spheres closer together, efforts are needed from both sides. "Many decision makers, to be frank, think that academics are abstracted into self-referential debates, mainly interested in impressing other academics, writing lighted solutions on matters that decision makers have to solve. Many academics, being honest again, attribute oversimplification to the decision makers, whom they perceive as interested in processes and outcomes, but not in understanding the causality of problems,” said the author, who added that experts consider that this gap is expanding, so it is critical to understand the mutually beneficial exchange of views.

Thomas Shannon, for his part, expressed concern that research is becoming increasingly specialized and politicians are becoming overwhelmed by the breadth of academic production. Therefore, he pointed to the need for meeting places between the two sectors which also involve the public, the subject of studies and recipient of public policies.

"It is a very connected era, with much access to information, and there is great pressure from various interest groups" to consider both theory and in practice, he said. The U.S. diplomat said it is "terribly important to try to reconnect the academy with the government, but not to do it with a single link, but recognizing the very dynamic world in which we live, with the increasing speed of economic and social change."

Fred Bergsten said the mission of think tanks like the one he represents, is precisely to serve as a link between the two visions that must find a point of understanding that helps to design more efficient policies for the public. Therefore, he considered it important that academics "understand the needs of the real world, to incorporate them into research before giving the answers that decision makers are going to ask for."

The official of the Peterson Institute said that academics should try to anticipate the concerns of real world politics, to develop research related to these fields. That, he added, is the contribution think tanks can make to establish productive links to the final public.

Finally, the moderator of the meeting, Cynthia Arnson said that in an overloaded era of speedy communications, an overwhelming amount of information and lack of time to read books or documents, in which people want information, "if not an tweet at least a paragraph or two," meeting spaces between academia and public policy makers are increasingly necessary.

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

The B-Roll of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-480/14