From speaking to community groups to liaising with the media and briefing policymakers, political scientists share their work with non-academic audiences in diverse ways. In this new interview series from APSA’s Public Engagement Program, APSA members discuss how and why they engage in the public arena and offer their tips for successful engagement.
Tanisha Fazal, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota
APSA interviewed Dr. Fazal about her experience with policy-relevant research and public outreach. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You published research on policy relevance in security studies. How do you incorporate policy relevance in your own work?
I think about policy relevance in my own research in two main ways. The first is that I try to ask policy relevant questions. I think that in all of our research we need to answer the “so what?” question. Why should we care? For me, a big part of that is speaking to what’s going on in the world right now, and that connects with policy. The second way is that I try to think through the policy implications of my findings and communicate those to a broader audience.
In addition to your books, you’ve written for everything from Foreign Affairs, to Lawfare, to the Monkey Cage. What motivates you to write for the public, or outside of traditional academic spaces?
I see this increasingly as a part of my job. It’s something I was always interested in doing. As a general comment, I think that the norms around policy engagement have shifted enormously over the course of my career. When I started out, this was not something that was encouraged. It may have even been frowned upon. Now with forums like Bridging the Gap, as well as others, there’s a much greater sense of emphasis on policy engagement. Not at the expense of doing solid research, of course, because the policy engagement usually happens as a result of disseminating the findings of really high-quality research. That has to come first, especially for junior people. But I think a lot of it, for me, stepping back and thinking globally, was about timing. It was shifting norms, combined with a changing media landscape. You didn’t always have blogs, you didn’t have the Monkey Cage. So many platforms for policy engagement exist today.
“Make sure you’re asking good questions that matter to you (…) You have to budget your time, and some people are better at it than others. Your academic writing has to be your priority, but the policy relevant writing emerges from that research when it’s done well.”.
Second, I’m motivated by what’s going on in the world. I wrote a piece for the Monkey Cage reflecting on 100 years of peace treaties timed around the anniversary of the Versailles treaty ending World War I. I’ve also written recently on the Syrian Civil War, and on the spread of health problems in the context of the Ukrainian civil war. That last post was inspired by listening to a podcast from The Daily, which talked about the path measles took from Ukraine to the United States. I sat down with a graduate student, and we looked at whether this was the way it was really happening, the subtleties we needed to explore, and that raised interesting and important questions. Sometimes you just have an article come out, and you want to promote it!
How did you learn to adapt your academic writing?
I had some training in that I went to the International Policy Summer Institute with the Bridging the Gap program, although I’d done some blog writing before that. I will say that I really appreciate editors. Most of these outlets have editors, and they will transform your piece into something that is much more readable than what your average academic might write.
I do think that even in our academic writing, we want to be as clear as possible and use as little jargon as we can. So, if that is how you approach your academic writing, you are in a much better position to reach a broader audience. But I do want to give a lot of credit to editors, because they do a tremendous amount of work to help us communicate our ideas more effectively.
What sort of responses have you received about your public writing?
The responses have been pretty positive. Social media platforms are really helpful. Outlets will publicize a piece that you’ve written, and that can lead to really interesting conversations and to being interviewed on podcasts, etc.
“I do think that even in our academic writing, we want to be as clear as possible and use as little jargon as we can. So, if that is how you approach your academic writing, you are in a much better position to reach a broader audience”.
I often get a response from an original article or other dissemination through the policy world. I’ll get invited to a meeting or a conference, and I find that to be mutually beneficial. It’s pretty gratifying when you learn that your work as gone up the chain and that people high up in policy circles have read it. One thing I really appreciate is when this outreach leads to new conversations and invitations that push my existing research forward, or push my research in other directions.
What advice would you share with a junior scholar interested in doing policy relevant research?
Make sure you’re asking good questions that matter to you. If your research has policy relevance, there are really only upsides to writing a short piece for an outlet like the Monkey Cage to connect your research to current events. Take advantage of those opportunities. That’s the minimal amount of policy engagement that a junior person might do, but there are many junior people that do much more than that. You have to budget your time, and some people are better at it than others. Your academic writing has to be your priority, but the policy relevant writing emerges from that research when it’s done well.