Volume 11, Issue 1, June 2016


Outside Academia: Political Science as a Profession
By Manuela Moschella, Stefania Panebianco and Francesco Zucchini

It is not uncommon to hear descriptions of the academic profession as an activity that takes place in an ivory tower. Academics, so the argument runs, are too focused on scientific work, and not sufficiently willing to share and engage with wider audiences. This could be the case for Political Science, which in Italy seems to be confined to academia. But this is not exactly true.

This IPS issue takes this criticism head on by going outside the ‘ivory tower’ to explore Political Scientists’ roles as managers, experts, consultants or public officials. We have reached out to a number of scholars and practitioners who actively participate in the political and social world we study, either because they have public roles in it, or private careers. Specifically, we asked IPS contributors to comment on two broad themes that pertain to the relationship between Political Science and the ‘world out there’.

The first theme is the distinctive contributions that political scientists can make in public debate and political processes but also the reverse, i.e. the additional value of experiences as public official or consultant to academic work. What emerges from the interviews and contributions in this issue is a generally positive assessment of the public role of political scientists. On the one hand, our contributors largely agree that the mindset (and education) of political scientists provide us with the ability to foster a more informed public debate and more efficient policy solutions. “Academic engagement can shape the terms of public discourse, providing information, and analytical models” (Cacciotto). According to the IPS contributors, this ability stems from our holistic and complex understanding of how the political sphere works, our knowledge of its rules and processes, and our capacity to be flexible and adaptable. On the other hand, “political experience provides political scientists with enormous knowledge about the objects they study” (Gualmini). In general, “academics and practitioners complement and improve each other in their respective endeavours and, together, they do a better job” (Settembri).

The second major theme our contributors were invited to comment on is the question of the ‘relevance’ of our discipline when compared to others such as law and economics. In this respect, there is substantial variation in the contributions that follow. In general, virtually all the authors seem to agree that political scientists should reach out more regularly. At the same time, however, there is no consensus on whether such public outreach is the key to increased relevance, in terms of obtaining a hearing in public and political debates. What emerges from the contributions is a widespread belief that political scientists are somehow marginalized in public debates and political decisions in our country, especially when compared to lawyers and economists: “we find ourselves operating in a cultural tradition that attributes to lawyers pride of place in the management of “cosa pubblica.” (Ventura); “economists have an advantage compared to political scientists: they simplify reality and give clear messages to policy-makers and stakeholders. Political scientists tend, by contrast, to make things complex and to give articulated and complex answers (Natali). This also applies in the EU institutions, though to a lesser extent. Nevertheless, “ for political scientists it is maybe easier than for academics with other backgrounds (for example anthropology, linguistics or psychology) to pursue policy advice as well” (Liberatore). Furthermore, it seems as if political scientists are reluctant to be vociferous in areas that clearly fall within the scope of their expertise, such as the area of public policy. Given this state of affairs, “getting our hands dirty” does not automatically translate into increased relevance.

In addition to these broad themes, IPS contributors also discuss the risks that derive from going outside the ivory tower. One author finds that “by becoming a decision-maker (e.g., by engaging directly in politics or public administration), the scholar tends to lose social recognition as a source of independent knowledge, and therefore s/he loses an important power resource” (Martinelli). Even for those who are much more positively oriented towards the direct intervention of scholars in decision-making processes, there are dangers: “You are doing things that you, as a scholar, do not approve of, even if you understand the meaning and sometimes the utility in the political game (…) an anchorage to a value system must be present” (Sacchi). Of course, these risks are not confined to political scientists, but apply to all disciplines that move beyond their scientific circles. At any rate, in reflecting on the implications of public engagement for political scientists, the IPS contributors remind us all of the conflicting logics of academic research and policy-making. Whereas the former is much more long-term in orientation, and largely free of constraints, the latter is more short-term, and decisional constrains are part of a larger machine (whether this be domestic (parliamentary) decision-making or the bureaucratic politics of an EU institution). Furthermore, the sources of authority are significantly different, as authority in academia is largely the result of scientific reputation, whereas in the ‘real world’ it largely depends on problem-solving ability. Reconciling the two logics is possible but also extremely complicated: “it is a fragile balance between different priorities and ways of looking at politics” (Natali).

Finally, it is interesting to note that several of our contributors make suggestions for the (re)organization of our undergraduate and graduate degree courses. In particular, there is general agreement on the need for more practical knowledge, for more “testimonies” from policy-makers but also for broader knowledge (Martinelli). “In today’s world, any political science curriculum should include activities, based on active pedagogy, that stimulate the problem-solving skills of students such as simulations, group projects, international exchanges and workshops with practitioners (Marchi). These suggestions tie in with the major issues discussed above; namely, the idea that political scientists’ distinctive contribution to public life consists precisely in a mindset that is able to grasp complexity in the political and social world. Suggestions that we should tilt towards more generalized knowledge and transversal skills, however, clash with the principle of specialization which has inspired much of the evolution of our discipline over the past two/three decades. Whether to pursue one path or another, or how to combine them, provides further food for thought. These issues – as highlighted by IPS contributors – represent a concern for all of us.

Political Scientists as Consultants and Advisors

IPS interviews Stefano Sacchi, an associate professor at the University of Milan and a non-resident research fellow at Collegio Carlo Alberto. He is a Comparative Political Economist, with a specific interest in the social and labor policies. […]

IPS interviews David Natali, an Associate Professor at the University of Bologna in Forlì. David Natali holds a PhD in political science from the European University Institute of Florence (EUI, 2002). The specific focus of his research is the comparative analysis of pensions, the EU coordination of social protection and social inclusion policy, the Lisbon Strategy and the Europe 2020 Strategy. […]

IPS interviews Marco Cacciotto, 47 year old, a political consultant since 1996, one of the first in Italy, giving strategic advice to parties, candidates, public administrations, interest groups and labor unions. […]

Political Scientists as Politicians and Public Officials

IPS interviews Elisabetta Gualmini, full professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna. Elisabetta Gualmini holds a Phd in Political Science (University of Florence) and has been visiting scholar at the WZB in Berlin, the Humboldt Universitat in Berlin, the London School of Economics, the UC Berkeley and the UC Los Angeles. […]

IPS interviews Luca Martinelli, an official of the European Commission. After completing his PhD in Political Science in the University of Florence in 1995, Dr Martinelli undertook research at the University of Bologna (Centre for Public Policy Analysis in the Department of Organization and Political System), on projects related to public administration and public policy analysis. […]

Political Science and the Professions of Political Scientists: EU officials
Pierpaolo Settembri (European Commission)

When a former student once asked me whether the PhD helped me get the job I have today, I replied without any hesitation with a resounding “No”. Now that I am given the opportunity, I would like to elaborate further on how, in my personal experience, an education in political science was important for my job as an official of the General Secretariat of the EU Council and then of the European Commission. In doing so I would like to discuss both (1) the access to the European public service and (2) the daily work as an EU official. In addition it may be useful to say a few words on (3) how an EU official may interact with academia and vice versa. […]

Political Scientists as Research and Training Experts

IPS interviews Angela Liberatore, a PhD in Political and Social Science from the European University Institute, and now Head of Unit at the European Research Council, European Commission. […]

When Political Scientists meet EU Negotiation and Negotiators

IPS interviews Francesco Marchi, a PhD at Sciences Po, Irene-Essec, and the Director of the «Negotiators of Europe» Research and Training Program. […]

Political Scientists as Public Intellectuals

IPS interviews Sofia Ventura, an Associate Professor at University of Bologna and Adjunct Professor at School of Government – LUISS Guido Carli of Rome. Sofia Ventura is a Political Scientist, with a specific interest in Comparative politics, Italian and French politics, Political leadership and Political communication. She holds a PhD in Political Science (University of Florence). […]

Book Reviews Edited by Carla Monteleone and Stefania Panebianco

Maurizio Carbone and Jan Orbie, The Trade-Development Nexus in the European Union. Differentiation, coherence and norms
Reviewed by Giuseppe Gabusi (University of Turin)

Lorenzo Cladi and Andrea Locatelli (eds.), International Relations Theory and European Security. We Thought We Knew
Reviewed by Andrea Carati (University of Milan)

Fabrizio Coticchia and Francesco N. Moro, The Transformation of Italian Armed Forces in Comparative Perspective. Adapt, Improvise, Overcome?
Reviewed by Marco Valigi (University of Bologna)

Manlio Graziano, Guerra santa e santa alleanza. Religioni e disordine internazionale nel XXI secolo
Reviewed by Emidio Diodato (Università per Stranieri di Perugia)

Simona Piattoni, The European Union. Democratic Principles and Institutional Architectures in Times of Crisis
Reviewed by Francesca Longo (University of Catania)

Andrea Pritoni, Poteri forti? Banche e assicurazioni nel sistema politico italiano
Reviewed by Orazio Lanza (University of Catania)

Donatella M. Viola, Routledge Handbook of European Elections
Reviewed by Francesco Raniolo (University of Calabria)

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