Myths about the Practitioners-Academics Divide

Teaching at a School of Public Policy I am often confronted with an academics vs. practitioners narrative. This narrative conflates several different alleged dividing lines. For instance, many students think that theory counts less than practical experience. In the media, academics live in an ivory tower, whereas policy makers and pundits work on real problems. The managerial university wants academics to have real impact and not to dabble in basic research.

There is some truth to the fact that many academics excessively focus on puzzles over problems, and engage in excessive intellectual Glasenperlenspiele. Yet, in general the academics vs. practitioners juxtaposition is misguided in several respects.


First and foremost, universities and academia need to be open and permissive to ideas from policy makers, experts, pundits and journalists, but universities are not the same as policy makers, experts, pundits and journalists. They have different tasks, different goals, and different training.

Just for starters, most interesting policy problems have a profoundly normative element, say an important normative tradeoff. Perhaps a certain type of social policy is good for equity but not for efficiency reasons. Or a surveillance system infringes on individual freedoms, but helps fighting crime. If an academic gave policy advice disguising it as technocratic, neutral evidence this would clearly be dissimulation and dishonest behaviour. An academic can talk about normative issues, but cannot preach it without becoming a politician. If he or she wants to do so, he or she needs to change hats.

Second, like all people ‘practitioners’ have theories in their heads, even if they never would call it like that. We need to intervene in Iraq? Yes, because we have a normative commitment and we think that interventions have a good chance of being effective. That’s an empirical (research) question (I am afraid usually they don’t). It is a question of disguised theory: I think interventions work, because life gets better among ordinary people (it didn’t really in Iraq), because people are grateful for toppling a dictator (well, not always), because it will lower the oil price (it didn’t). Revealing these types of implicit blinders and adhoc reasonings and working them through in a systematic way is perhaps something policy makers don’t have time for (although I think they should). Yet, it is definitely something academics need to do in order to make sure they know the limits of their own reasoning.

Thirdly and most profoundly, I think there is also a misunderstanding and a certain abuse of the word practitioners. If you think hard it is quite difficult to draw precise lines between practitioners and theoreticians in a modern knowledge-based society. Governments run dozens of think tanks, research institutes and large scientific back-offices for both their executive and legislative branches. Are people working in these institutions practitioners or researchers? Many employees in supranational organizations do more research than practical work (IMF staff papers, ILO working papers, EU commission reports). In these examples, the boundary between academic and practitioner is clearly fuzzy.

This boundary becomes even blurrier, if you look from the perspective of universities. Any random academic like me has gathered a lot of practical experience in running programs, launching new ones, thinking about pedagogical tricks how to motivate students etc. This kind of practical knowledge will be overlooked in a world in which innovation seems to originate exclusively in the private sector. Why is this the case? A basic reason is that unlike measurable skills, experience is hard to observe. Experience is knowledge created on and for a specific job. People from other sectors, other jobs would not necessarily guess what types of experience are important. This is why experience often does not pay. And this is why outsiders sometimes overestimate their skills. Just think about the millions of wannabe sports coaches who always know better which players to pick, which tactics to use etc.

More fundamentally, I think, the academics vs. practitioners narrative comes from a certain perspective that deems the private sector inherently more productive than the public sector. While there are many good examples that the public sector does indeed have efficiency and incentives problems, stated in such a general form this claim is more ideological than real. Large bureaucracies create slack, motivation problems and coordination failures, no matter whether they are in the private or public sector. In organizations efficiency and effectiveness usually depend on many other things (much more) than on the private/ public divide.

Why do I say this? Clearly not just to complain (although, as any good academic, I excel at that). But it is necessary to show and argue what universities can do and what their role in societies is. In my field, for instance, the main task of universities is to educate people who want to become a certain type of practitioners in the government and non-profit sectors. We train bureaucrats for all types of agencies, whether or not you like the term ‘bureaucrat’. Academics can give these people basic skills, knowledge. It is much harder for them to give them experience. And what they cannot do, for instance, is to make them entrepreneurs. The large batch of famous college drop-outs like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are testimony of this.

In a famous poem Robert Frost said fences make good neighbours. Thus clearly defining a division of labour between academics and the real world out there is beneficial for both sides. If you know what academics can and cannot do, there is little reason to fear an academics vs. practitioners divide, but much potential for fruitful cooperation.


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