By Gibson Haynes
On Wednesday, Sept. 16, our class was joined by Dr. Evan Medeiros, who shared with us his experiences in both think tanks and government service. Dr. Medeiros, who holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, has worked in think tanks including the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the RAND Corporation as a political scientist. However, from August of 2009, he entered into government service with the US National Security Council as director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia affairs, advising the President and the National Security Advisor on the region. In July, 2013, he was promoted to Senior Director for Asian Affairs within the National Security Council, a position he held until June of this year. With high-level experience in both environments, he shared valuable information on the operation of think tanks, the policymaking process, and the interaction between the two.
He began the talk by noting that the relationship between think tanks and policymaking is highly contextual; it depends in large part on the country in which a think tank is located and the traditions found there. In the United States, think tanks are predominantly independent from the government, funded by many individuals, foundations, and interest groups. This independence, alongside a commitment to nonpartisan research and recommendations, typifies the think tank tradition in the US; Dr. Medeiros asserted that the source of this tradition is the strength of the philanthropic mindset in the US. However, it was noted that these traditions are changing with the proliferation of partisan institutions. China's think tank traditions represent a different model, where the institutions are predominantly either official branches of government or funded by government organizations. The association of think tanks with government may stem from the prevailing tradition of public intellectuals in China as proponents of the country's advancement.
Dr. Medeiros gave recommendations for properly conducting research in a think tank environment, acknowledging that he would be using a US-centric model, as this is the system he participated in. He emphasized three components in producing useful research: a quality research question, a quality research process, and a quality policy recommendation.
In deciding on a research question, a scholar's answer must provide new knowledge. Knowing the research environment and what has been done before allows a scholar to identify which topics are under-researched while not repeating others' work. At the same time, a scholar must also know something of the current trends in policy circles in order to produce research that policymakers will find relevant to their needs. To that end, building relationships with and asking questions of people in government is important.
How the scholar performs the research itself is critical to its usefulness. After all, if it is not conducted in an academically rigorous fashion, a study will produce neither accurate results nor a helpful policy recommendation. This is not to say that only quantitative methods can be used or that they are superior to qualitative methods; not every policy question lends itself to data-based analysis. Instead, a researcher can use case studies and controlled comparison to produce useful qualitative analyses. These sorts of analyses are particularly relevant if they are based on primary sources; unfortunately for area scholars, this means that a substantial amount of foreign language skill is simply the price of entry into substantive research. We were particularly cautioned to avoid confusing individual conversations with substantive qualitative research; one of Dr. Medeiros' refrains was "the plural of anecdotes is not evidence."
Even once research has been performed well and quality data is acquired, a scholar must still be careful about the policy recommendation they make. While a single, comprehensive solution may exist in theory for a particular policy issue, practical considerations such as economic cost, political capital, or ideology can often render such options useless. Relationships with people actively engaged in governing are particularly important to this aspect of research; such "insiders" are best positioned to help a scholar determine what sort of policy is implementable. If a scholar can offer a realistic recommendation, backed by solid research, they are best positioned to offer utility in the policymaking arena.
Dr. Medeiros further cautioned that while influencing policy debate is the goal of the think tank world, such influence is moderate and indirect at best. Every once in a while, a well-regarded scholar in the right place, at the right time, with the right expertise can provide a single nudge that steers policymakers in a particular direction, but it is rarely as simple as a straight line from a report's recommendations to a new government policy. However, Dr. Medeiros asserted that where think tanks excel is in dissecting an issue, separating the many and varied strands that compose it, and, by providing a more nuanced view, redefining the way policymakers debate the issue. He concluded the talk by taking questions from the class, ranging from issues with the TPP to the utility of collaborative research.