An Academic Wanders into Washington D.C.

December 6, 2010 at 7:38 pm 8 comments

I was on a Do Not Track panel in Washington D.C. last week. I spent a day in the city and had many informal conversations with policy people. It was fascinating to learn from close range how various parts of the Government work. If I could sum it up in a single phrase, it would be “so many smart people, so many systemic problems.”

What follows is obviously the account of an outsider, and I’m sure there are many nuances I’ve missed. That said, an outsider’s view can sometimes provide fresh perspective. So without further ado, here are some of my observations.

A deep chasm. Techies are by-and-large oblivious of what goes on in D.C., and have a poor mental picture of what regulators are or aren’t involved in. For example, I attended part of a talk on antitrust concerns around the Google search algorithm, and it blew my mind to realize that something that techies think of as their playground comes under serious regulatory scrutiny. (I hear the Google antitrust issue is really big in the EU, and the US is catching up.) Equally, the policy world is quite lacking in tech expertise.

Libertarian influence. While the libertarian party is not mainstream in the US, libertarian think tanks and lobbying groups exercise significant influence in D.C. While that gladdens me as a libertarian, one unfortunate thing that appears to be common to all think tanks is toeing the party line at the expense of critical thinking. I’m not sure there can be a market failure so complete that libertarian groups will consider acknowledging the need for some government intervention.

A new kind of panel. The panel I attended was very different from what I’m used to. In a scientific or technical panel, there is an underlying truth even if the participants may disagree about some things. Policy panels seem to be very different: each participant represents a group that has an entrenched position and there is no scope for actual debate or any possibility of changing one’s mind. The panel is instead a forum for the speakers to state their respective positions for the benefit of the media and the public. There is nothing wrong with this, but it took me a while to grasp.

Lobbyists. The American public is deeply concerned about the power of lobbyists. But lobbyists perform the valuable function of providing domain expertise to legislators and regulators. Of course, the problem is that they also have the role of trying to get favorable treatment for the industry groups they represent, and these roles cannot be disentangled.

The solution is to increase the power of the counterweights to lobbyists, i.e., consumer advocates, environmental groups etc. A loose analogy is that if we’re worried about wealthy individuals getting better treatment from the judicial system, the answer is not to get rid of lawyers, but to improve the quality of public prosecutors and defenders. I don’t know if the lobbyist imbalance can ever be completely eliminated, but I think it can be drastically mitigated.

A humble suggestion. Generalizing my experiences in the tech field, I suspect that the Government lacks domain expertise in virtually every area, hence the dependence on lobbyists. If only more academics were to get involved in policy, it seems to me that it would solve both problems mentioned above — it would address the lack of expertise and it would shift the balance of advocacy in favor of consumers. (There are certainly many law scholars involved in policy, but I’m thinking more of scientists and social scientists here — those who have domain knowledge.)

To reiterate, I believe that a greater involvement of academics in policy has the potential to hugely improve how government works. But how do we make that happen? I have a couple of suggestions. Government people seem to have a tendency to listen to whoever talks the loudest in Washington. Instead, they should make an effort to seek out people with actual expertise. Second, I hope academics will take into account benefits like increased visibility and consider moonlighting in policy circles.

Thanks to Joe Calandrino for comments on a draft.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Hall  |  December 6, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Hear, hear! May I suggest that academics consider programs like the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program (or the like), where you can be placed in Congress or an Agency for a year or two to bring a scientific perspective and learn about the DC policy arena. This may not be appropriate for someone who’s hot on track to submit a tenure case soon, but certainly postdocs, professors looking for policy sabbaticals and academically-oriented professionals might find such an experience illuminating and valuable. (Unfortunately, the deadline for applying to the 2011-2012 program was yesterday!)

    • 2. Arvind  |  December 7, 2010 at 1:29 am

      Ha! Thanks for the pointer, I didn’t know about that fellowship program.

  • 3. Milind Kulkarni  |  December 6, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I sympathize greatly with your desire to get academics more involved in public policy. Unfortunately, this tends not to play well with certain strains of anti-intellectualism that tend to pervade DC. Worse, when academics try to play the game by yelling louder and making their case in simple, black-and-white terms in order to even be heard in the debate, they often undermine what makes academic input so valuable: the existence and acknowledgement of nuance.

    I think the experience of climate scientists is illustrative in all of these regards.

    • 4. Arvind  |  December 6, 2010 at 11:14 pm

      Interesting perspective. I don’t know much about climate science and policy, but I have to say that based on my experiences so far, my involvement in tech policy seems to be welcomed and well-received.

  • 5. Michael  |  December 7, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Arvind, thanks for a very interesting glimpse of how Washington works. I wonder if we can home in on the question of why scientists, specifically, aren’t connecting with legislators by thinking about other groups who do manage to communicate their expert knowledge to politicians.

    The first group I have in mind is economists. It seems to be normal for domain experts in economics to move between academia, think tanks, industry and government. Why is it that if a politician wants advice on monetary policy, they ask an economist, but if they want advice on environmental policy, they ask an economist? Is the relationship between politics and economics necessarily closer than that between, say, politics and ecology, or have the two disciplines just grown together due to some kind of historical accident?

    The second group is career civil servants. I’m not sure how things work in the US, but in the UK, each minister is advised by a staff of career civil servants, neither elected nor appointed by the minister, who are supposed to be apolitical domain experts. In theory their expertise feeds into the minister’s policy decisions, and later into the implementation of the minister’s chosen policy. Clearly this approach has its problems (lack of accountability, no separation between legislature and executive), but it does at least provide a sort of existence proof for channels other than lobbying through which politicians can seek expert advice. So maybe we need to ask why this works for, say, transport policy but not for technology policy? Or perhaps it doesn’t work that well for any domain, but you have to be an expert to realise it? ;-)

    • 6. Arvind  |  December 7, 2010 at 6:44 pm


      Both great points. As for economists, I suspect that the field is intrinsically more closely related to government than most sciences. But I think that’s not the whole explanation; for some reason scientists participate much less in policy than they should.

      To your second point, if I understand correctly, the US relies much less on these career people than the UK/Europe. Neither approach seems clearly preferable to me, and the US system fits well with the overall philosophy of smaller government. More importantly, these things can’t really be changed, so for better or for worse the US will probably always depend on lobbyists to a significant degree.

  • 7. Gary  |  December 10, 2010 at 4:22 am

    I was interested in your opinion about the regulatory environment and IT; certainly here is Australia it is a hot topic; here there is a big government push for creating a blacklist of illegal/offensive websites however the polititians keep stumbling when realising the complexities of that undertaking (e.g. an ordinary dentist website was added to the potential list and the definition of what constitures an objectionable Website is an entirely mammoth undertaking). Aaahhh…

    • 8. Arvind  |  December 14, 2010 at 5:12 pm

      Yes, that’s a big issue here as well, although it does appear that Australia is generally ahead of the US in implementing ill-advised Internet filtering :)

      I think it’s a great example of the problems with lobbying — if I understand correctly, at least in the US, the push for filtering comes largely from copyright lobbyists.


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I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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