News | July 1, 2021

Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security

By Paula G. Thornhill Joint Force Quarterly 102

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Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security
Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security
Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security
Photo By: Michael C. Desch
VIRIN: 210629-D-PN951-005

Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security
By Michael C. Desch
Princeton University Press, 2019
368 pp. $35.00
ISBN: 978-0691181219

Brigadier General Paula G. Thornhill, USAF (Ret.), Ph.D., is the Associate Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of Demystifying the American Military (Naval Institute Press, 2019).

Can the policy and academic communities work together more effectively to address America’s toughest national security problems? In Cult of the Irrelevant, Michael Desch takes readers on a 100-year examination of the relationship between national security practitioners and social scientists in an effort to answer this question. Desch, an international relations professor at Notre Dame University, captures the ebb and flow in this relationship by examining the rise of think tanks, the emergence (and disappearance) of university-based national security programs, the extent of Federal funding, and the appearance of policy recommendations in scholarly journals.

Not surprisingly, Desch finds that more cooperation exists between academics and practitioners during wartime. In particular, World War II and the Cold War produced enduring, substantive cooperation in areas such as arms control and strategic stability. This cooperation also gave rise to new institutions—for example, federally funded research and development centers such as RAND—in an attempt to further strengthen ties between the academic and policy communities.

Desch goes on to argue that despite these temporary peaks in cooperation, the social sciences are increasingly irrelevant to policymakers. He places the blame for this slow, sporadic, yet relentless slide into irrelevance squarely on the shoulders of social scientists themselves. These academics, he asserts, increasingly insist on asking non–policy relevant questions and then rigidly adhering to strict methodological approaches to address them. The academy’s waning influence continues despite America’s involvement in two wars since September 11, 2001. Desch contends that even the most noteworthy post-9/11 example of cooperation, the Department of Defense–sponsored Minerva Research Initiative, experienced only marginal success in bringing the academy’s expertise to bear on policy problems.

Desch offers an important argument, however, and it would resonate more with the practitioner if, first, it looked less at the impact of individuals (for example, Bernard Brodie, Walt Rostow, Thomas Schelling) and more into where, when, and how scholarly work best insinuates itself into the policy process. Second, surprisingly, his argument excludes major international programs in security and strategic studies, especially those in the United Kingdom. These international programs offer a different and perhaps more compelling example for how to merge academic rigor and policy relevance. Anecdotally, from my years in the Pentagon and professional military education, scholars such as Michael Howard, Lawrence Freedman, Hew Strachan, and Colin Gray have had a profound, albeit unquantifiable, influence on American national security policy. Finally, Desch’s work would find a warmer welcome in the policy community if he offered specific recommendations on how to bridge the policy-academy divide beyond a plea for more policy-oriented research.

For those serving in America’s joint force, then, the most important question is should I add Cult of the Irrelevant to my “must-read” list of books. The answer is largely no, with a few important exceptions. First, Desch’s book is useful to U.S. defense personnel heading to civilian master’s degree programs in security or strategic studies. These interdisciplinary programs are popular in the national security community precisely because they are policy- and practitioner-focused. For that reason, the academy is not especially keen on them, except, unfortunately, as potential revenue sources. But Desch’s book would help explain where these programs fit in the larger academic universe. Moreover, if defense policy personnel are tackling a Ph.D., Desch’s book provides context for the challenges of finding an advisor willing to take on a student interested in policy-relevant research.

Second, for individuals in the policy realm, it helps to explain why the academy is largely irrelevant to so many policy debates. The incentive structure, including pay, promotions, and prestige, largely encourages social scientists to veer away from policy issues. In short, why should social scientists focus on policy issues when their peers disdain such an undertaking? It also provides some context for the complicated relationship among the policy community, the academy, and the think tank world. As Desch points out, the latter emerged to provide policy relevance and academic rigor. The extent to which the think tank community accomplishes this is continually debated.

Finally, those in command action groups or their equivalents might want to read Desch’s book before their principals host an academic. They will find insights in Cult of the Irrelevant, especially in chapters 1 and 9, that will help their principal engage their visitor on a more substantive, realistic level. Especially when it comes to the latter, it prepares their principal for the likelihood that a visiting academic would neither be able to nor even care about answering key policy-relevant questions such as “So what?” and “What’s next?” Recognizing that a social scientist would likely steer away from the policy realm allows staff to calibrate their principals’ expectations, and thus, paradoxically, create a better opportunity to gain useful insights. Given this tradeoff, it also raises the possibility that turning to a practitioner-scholar in the first place, the kind the academy eschews, might ultimately be more useful.

In Cult of the Irrelevant, Desch does an admirable job exploring the gap between the policy community and the social sciences. Perhaps because he is an academic himself, however, the enduring relevance of his book rests solely with the academy, not with policy practitioners. Does the academy feel a need to leave its ivory tower to reinvigorate its policy relevance? Absent significant change, Desch leads the reader to a resounding “no.” While the book will be interesting to policymakers and their staffs, Servicemembers’ reading time is better spent on works that help them understand and solve policy problems, rather than on academic programs and individuals irrelevant to their solutions. JFQ