After two days of presentations and conversations with a distinguished group of academics, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials and think tank professionals, I am in an upbeat mood. I thought it was indeed possible to ‘bridge the academic-foreign policy divide’.
But first what was this divide we were asked to reflect upon? There were a number of divisions at play but I will just briefly reflect on two – an intra-academic one and an inter-professional one. One challenge is actually within the academy itself where they remains a degree of suspicion about how far and in what kind of manner we might engage and liaise with other communities, especially government. Notwithstanding the impact agenda and associated emphases on public engagement and working beyond the academy, delegates did reflect on the fact that academics have mixed views regarding such endeavours.
Inter-professionally, it was repeatedly noted that academics and foreign policy professionals have their own routines and rhythms and one common complaint is that academic writing and speaking is too technical and at times opaque. Academics wishing to reach out to foreign policy professionals need to be mindful that they need to develop a capacity to write and speak straight forwardly without being unduly simplistic. Being concise was also judged to be an advantage. For academics, the foreign policy arena is also filled with its own qualities, which can be off-putting to outsiders (such as the widespread use of technical acronyms and even the very spaces where foreign policy work gets undertaken).
Responding to the provocation that there were divides to be overcome, much of the conversation turned on how academics in particular can help themselves by being straight forward, persistent in terms of making personal contacts and clear on what they thought they had to offer in terms of knowledge sharing. However, they also needed to recognise that their ideas and input might not deliver obvious measures of ‘impact’ and ‘influence’, which in itself is not unique to the foreign policy-academic nexus. At least one academic delegate recalled their role in producing a report for government which bore no record of the role that individual had made to the production process.
One notable feature of the event was the time given over to networking and the exchange of experience and I hope that many participants will go away inspired about how they might engage with one another in the future (including their fellow delegates). As I noted with reference to my own experiences, it can be challenging as you engage with a different community with its distinct professional needs. But it can also be very rewarding as you get the opportunity to have your ideas questioned (at times cross-examined) and indeed consumed in ways that you might not have anticipated.
Finally, we owe a debt of gratitude to Al Pinkerton and Rachael Squire who worked very hard with colleagues at Cumberland Lodge to produce a convivial meeting. Our thanks also to the British Academy for providing financial support.