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Research Is At Our Core

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soleimani event in bechtel
Panelists Colin Kahl, Abbas Milani, Lisa Blaydes and Brett McGurk shared their perspectives on what the future of U.S.-Iran relations may entail with moderator Michael McFaul (far left) at the Freeman Spogli Institute on January 10, 2020. Photo: Ari Chasnoff

This is part three of six in which Director Michael McFaul talks about his vision for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the accomplishments he's most proud of so far, and why he keeps returning to the Farm.

At our core we are a research institute. I never lose sight of that and am always looking to expand our interdisciplinary research. FSI is home to eight centers and a growing number of specialized research programs and initiatives. Since starting as director five years ago, we’ve kicked off initiatives focused on European security as well as Asia, the Middle East and cyber security. We’ve developed research strengths in these regions where we didn’t have them before. And a regional orientation for research will continue to be relevant as the world around us continues to reshape itself.

The rising importance of China certainly calls for our attention. We have a lot of depth on China here at FSI and at the university, but we need more, particularly around the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. I’d like to see us offer more courses on U.S.-China relations and the Chinese economy. These are complicated subjects and the data we have on them are not great. What’s more, they touch on a whole set of topics related to U.S.-China competition in high-tech, including the race to artificial intelligence and the development of cyber weapons.

Of course, my plans are only worth as much as the people we are able to attract. Our research centers each require academic leadership, and making sure we're hiring new people or attracting people from the university to lead the centers is crucial to the future of FSI. That's the highest priority. Thankfully we’re off to a terrific start. We’ve hired an incredibly diverse group of new scholars recently, and their expertise and perspectives are invaluable. I’m thinking of Francis Fukuyama, Anna Grzymala-Busse, Oriana Skylar Mastro and many others.

You really can't do anything at a place like FSI without talented people. You can have all the great ideas you want. If you don't have the warm bodies to actually do them, it doesn't matter. If you don't create the permissive conditions for academics to do the work that they want to do, you can't tell them what to do. That's how my job today is different than my job as the US ambassador.

When I was the ambassador, most people would listen to me and would do what I'd say, because everybody knew I was the boss. They would open the door for me when I would come down into the office. They would all say, "Mr. Ambassador." That's not the way it works at the university. Instead of saying, "Here's my vision, now you guys go do it," you've got to create the vision from what people want to do already. Getting that right is the highest priority for the next five years, especially as we develop leadership for the future.

I’m proud of launching a new research center recently, the Cyber Policy Center. This center brings together the various programs and people throughout the university working on what I think are the core challenges for security, development and governance of our time. The fourth floor of Encina Hall has been transformed to integrate their work here, which will be instrumental in creating the necessary bridges between D.C. and Silicon Valley, and the technology and policy arenas.

Another new initiative that I’m proud of, on global populism, is demonstrating the growth of social polarization around the globe, including right here in America. This trend makes public policy discussions privileged opinion and demotes data and evidence. We need to fight back on that. Policy decisions made with data behind it are better than ones that are made with just intuition or opinion behind it.

Especially in periods of polarization it's incumbent upon places like FSI to be committed to getting their scientific research into the public policy domains. That all said, it's not enough just to do your research and wait for the President of the United States to give you a call to ask you about your research.

We have to be creative, nimble and innovative about how we get our ideas, based on data, evidence and research into the public policy domain. And it’s a two-way street. The public and those in the policy world need to be more willing to listen to data and accept policy reforms based on data.

Read part four in this series, Making a Policy Impact, or return to the Meet the Director page.

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