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14 January 2008

Further to the limited impact of university level intelligence scholarship

Our earlier comments decrying the essential irrelevance of much of the intelligence studies academy to the professional practitioner has provoked no small measure of reaction over the past month. Most comments have come from those still serving, with anecdotes – in truth, mostly horror stories – of the failure of numerous attempts to reach out to the scholars in the field. It seems there is a certain degree of stubbornness – one might even say a profound expression of anchoring bias – which ties the professoriat to lines of inquiry that contribute only marginally to the art and science, despite clear needs in other areas.

The esteemed Dr. Barton Whaley reflected upon this problem in a recent article, which in part examined the academic tendency to continually try to re-invent the wheel. (For those interested, it may be found in the Defense Intelligence Journal, Volume 15, Number 2, 2006.) His personal list of such wheels covered includes the “re-discovery” of the problems of strategic surprise. In this spirit, we might add our own list of those topics we think more than adequate attention has already been paid, given the other gaps in the literature. Among these are the continual attempt to revisit the foundational definition of intelligence, the endless rehashing of debates over words of estimative probability, and the needless attempts to impose a false and entirely arbitrary numeric precision in intelligence writing.

One of our colleagues put it best: the primary reason these sorts of academic wittering continue unabated has been the small number of professionals who have actually read such irrelevant stuff. And even fewer will have dwelt upon it long enough to respond, rather than laughing it off. Unfortunately, even those that have gone through the difficulties of finding time apart from the pressing business of current accounts, and fought through publication review in order to convey substantive examples from inside the vault, rarely make a dent in the external discussion, given how few pages emerge to compete with the growing corpus of distraction.

But we strongly suspect there are yet other intelligence studies academics that may indeed be well worth listening to, and we continue our discussions in the forlorn hope of surfacing their work more widely within the community. Thus we were most grateful for the insightful commentary regarding the same earlier post, provided by a learned individual whom we shall describe (with permission) only as a Western intelligence scholar, and full professor at a top tier university. The gentleman sought to enlighten your humble authors regarding the flipside of the equation of intelligence scholarship from the university’s perspective, and raised points well worth wider consideration. (Reproduced here with only minor editing to preserve the anonymity upon which all of our skunkworks relies). His response speaks to “two central factors which have inhibited not only the volume and quality of (ivory) tower scholarship on intelligence matters, but also the impact of scholarly work on the IC.

First—and this holds true for a variety of areas, and not just the IC—most scholars simply have no sense of how bureaucratic and government processes, let alone the military and IC, operate. It is not anything taught in graduate school, where the emphasis is very much on mastering the theoretical masters of the field. The majority of academics have fairly predictable career paths from undergraduate degree through to MA and PhD, with little outside-academia work experience (the exceptions being "professional" schools of diplomacy and foreign service, which place more emphasis on recruiting staff with professional experience, and also many scholars working in the aid and development field). I would register a disagreement with your observation that: "Lacking in-depth target knowledge, substantive understanding of applied analytical tradecraft, and relying on a too short tour (if even that) at a three letter organization or two, the result becomes a sort of punditry entirely divorced from the profession itself." More specifically, while I don't disagree with the broader point that you are making, I would argue that the quality of academic literature on intelligence, war, and diplomacy would be substantially improved by even relatively periods spent inside an agency, or foreign or defence ministry.”

Second, the professional reward system within academia neither rewards policy-relevant output, nor does it place much value on material published outside the regular scholarly channels. Indeed, even the latter are carefully weighted (formally or informally) by their academic prestige within a disciplinary field, with leading university presses and peer-reviewed journals coming first, lesser presses and journals second, and everything else a very scant third. In other words, the benefit that accrues to a scholar is almost in inverse proportion to the actual policy impact (or, in this case, impact on the intelligence community).

Although most scholars don't think directly in these terms, it is possible to put some numbers on this. Let us take the hypothetical example of an excellent scholar who forgoes publication in a top-ranked journal (say APSR or World Politics), and instead produces a online piece or occasional paper in easily disseminated and digestible form with direct IC implications. Come annual salary increment time, the former might well be worth $750 (or more) in annual pay increase… the latter perhaps $150 (or less). Lets also make them 34, with a thirty year career ahead of them. The lifetime loss from writing the latter is (ignoring inflationary effects, etc) a minimum of $18,000. If they did it every year--well, quite apart from the tenure and promotion consequences, you can see that the implicit disincentive is substantial. Equally important are the validation messages that fields send to themselves, and the prestige and value one is accorded within academic networks and other peer groups.

This is quite apart from other inhibiting factors.”

We confess that we had not properly considered the economic incentives in the equation – thinking primarily of the thing as an unambiguous good in its own right. Of course, this is also a product of our own cognitive biases – rarely in the IC do contributions to the literature translate directly into one’s pay packet in the same manner (perhaps one reason why the literature advances so slowly.) Neither should the currency of the reputation market be lightly discounted.

If the community is to encourage the kind of the scholarship in the intelligence studies field that will actually serve the profession’s interest, these factors need to be taken into account. The learned gentleman does offer a few potential solution pathways, which merit further discussion.

“How can this be addressed? The recent proliferation of peer-reviewed academic journals on intelligence and security matters certainly helps, although it doesn't necessarily contribute to scholarly output with IC impacts. Sporadic efforts to get scholars inside government for a year or two, whether as scholars-in-residence or in an actual functioning capacity, ought to be expanded upon, and designed to have benefits (such as in-built research funds) that offset the apparent career liabilities of "wasting" (to quote a departmental colleague) one's sabbatical in this way. Finally, the intelligence community needs to reflect on whether its frequent aversion to providing "visiting" scholars with high-level security clearances needs to be rethought. There are certainly substantial security issues involved, given that scholars might well be lecturing on a country in class shortly after reading highly sensitive COMINT or HUMINT on the same. On the other hand, its not clear how they can understand what is going on--let alone contribute to the betterment of IC functions--if they are entirely kept out of the loop. At this point (and at the risk of paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld), most don't know what they don't know.

Money can be found, but its application towards productive ends has been problematic. Unfortunately, too often research funds have done little to redirect a faculty to more relevant pursuits, being simply contracts which were serviced using largely student labour. (Again, as in many cases of suboptimal contract performance, the fault may lie as much with the contracting agencies management of the project, but the history is what it is.) While cleared scholarship is an interesting concept, this is typically also done through a contracting vehicle – which tends to take the work product out of the academic realm and into the community itself, greatly limiting distribution elsewhere in the intelligence studies field. Many academics – with some justified reason – are also reluctant to accept the kind of future publication constraints that a term of cleared service will inevitably impose.

These are matters that deserve greater consideration, and we no doubt will return to in future discussions. We are grateful as always to our readership, and in particular to our commentator, for helping advance this discussion in ways we never could have anticipated when this small effort was begun.

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