Where Academic and Military Dialogues go Wrong, and how to Correct it

Dr Ziya Meral opens the Global Analysis Programme Annual Conference

Written by Dr Ziya Meral

This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.


A while ago, I heard a senior defence official noting that we still do not know how to engage with and bring in external expertise into the defence world. He gave the example of an official working on a key issue brushing away a recommendation to engage with an established academic with decades on that issue with: ‘he is an academic, so not really relevant’. Thankfully, such reactions are rarer these days, and there have been increasing examples of how UK Defence has been engaging and drawing insights from the academic, think tank and corporate research worlds.

However, if we are to be honest, there is also a trail of projects and engagement and initiatives that did not result in much outcome, or got derailed, no matter how well-intentioned their starts were. There are multiple reasons behind such failures, and if we are serious about our need to deepen engagement between the two worlds, we have to be honest and reflective about it.

Below are some of the most common unspoken (and loudly-spoken) reasons I have observed as someone who has dwelled in the no-man’s land between scholarship and policy practice for a decade now.

First, intimidation: Often both academics and military personnel feel intimated with each other’s qualifications and experiences, or what they lack personally compared to the other. Academics often feel intimated by uniforms, ranks, codes of military relations and the experiences and knowledge and skills that military personnel have which they don’t. Military personnel, too, often feel intimidated with impressive lists of degrees, academic affiliations or publications. While a portion of this is healthy and a reflection of differences, at times this becomes downright unhelpful and triggers frustrations and interpersonal mismatches.

Second, misperception: A renowned academic who spoke at one of the events I organised at Sandhurst expressed to me his shock at how progressive, nuanced and thought-through Army officers were, and how teachable and open they were to challenges and ideas. That is a common feedback I get from more than two dozen experts and academics that I invite for events each year. It reflects misperceptions of academics about people in uniform, but also that they see the complex nature, organisation and personnel of militaries merely through images or lenses of war fighting. Similarly, military personnel too often express views that they found some famous authors and academics well-informed, approachable, kind and helpful. In both worlds, skill sets, experiences, expertise, professional levels are much more complex than stereotypes allow.

Third, not knowing how the others’ world works: Every professional community has its own codes, language patterns, ‘the way things work here’, hierarchies, patronages, institutional cultures and histories, and ‘we have always done it this way’, and a lot of people who are certain that ‘it won’t work, because’. These apply to both worlds, and to many more. However, a lack of knowledge on academic work patterns, outputs and their production, rankings, and university and think tank contexts often limits or strains the engagement of military personnel with academics, or the expectations that they have of them. Similarly, a lack of knowledge on how militaries and the civil service is structured (who does what) and no understanding of the tempo of defence work cycles and deployments often undermine academic and expertise engagement with the defence world.

Fourth, not knowing how to translate and integrate each other’s contributions: This is where most of the well-intended activities and programmes fall short of actualising their potential and enabling long-term and ongoing connections. Academic jargon is only matched by military and civil service jargon, and even if one intentionally drops such language (you must), and produce documents and events that have considerable relevance for the defence world, we still do not know how to best infuse insights gained from them into the planning and operational contexts, and a lot of the success stories boil down to either personal relationships, or the personal passions and skills of particular academics and defence personnel. The problem with personalised successes becomes clear as peers move on, get promoted, and the next person in the post might have neither the personal nor professional interest. Then, all the highly relevant and important conversations get put into the box of PME, which is good on its own, but highly problematic when it is only seen as a personal hobbyhorse or a luxury on the side, rather than a fundamental aspect of being a soldier and officer and defence planner in today’s complex world.

Dr Ziya Meral discusses the CHACR and wider PME with the Japanese Military delegation

So how do we move on from these? This is an important question if we want to avoid committing the usual mistakes of confusing frustration and cynicism with intellectual or critical thinking, and of pointing out everything that is wrong or subjective with having a meaningful analytical contribution to make.

First, we have to be intentional. We cannot assume that every academic or every defence person is suitable for projects, initiatives and joint work. Some are able to cross the deep differences, adapt the respectable attitude to each other’s worlds and decades long formation, and work together. Some are not. Thus we have to be intentional and selective on who is in this space, but also intentional and clear on what it is that we are after. Such conversations and projects and exchanges have to be thought through and planned, not only with a rough tasking that quickly boils down to the usual ways of operationalising them, but with a substantial amount of energy spent with the right people and the right skills to set things in the right direction and with the right impact.

Second, we have to be respectful. Here what I mean is not just common courtesy, but a deeper appreciation of each other’s worlds, and the professional codes of conduct that establish it. For example, if you are using an expert for an event or a paper or taking their ideas and time substantially, you must respect that by providing an honorarium or ensure that their work is acknowledged, just like we would do with any provider of a capability, logistics, maintenance and service. Do not expect all experts to offer their time pro bono (although some will choose so to do). Remuneration and/or recognition are reasonable expectations! Respect is also based on an understanding of what the other can do or deliver or accommodate. Academics and experts do not know everything (ok, some do believe that, they need help, and not opportunities to expand egos) but are at their best in specific areas or methodologies, and cannot necessarily deliver everything and anything at the desired speed or by a given date. And academics need to respect and understand the hierarchies and processes of Defence decision-making: Defence personnel cannot routinely simply or rapidly decide upon or alter gigantic shifts in policies and operations, and often have to walk a tightrope involving politics, practicalities, budgets or chains of command (or all of the above). Awareness of each other’s limitations is fundamental to developing professional respect, and thus grounds each other in the right place for meaningful conversations to emerge.

Third, we need connectors, translators and enablers. If we want to maintain long-term conversations, have impact of engagement, and develop meaningful relationships, we have to raise and equip and use people that can matchmake between the two worlds. This is different than simply asking for insights from established academics or think tankers on topics of concern, but also focusing on the skills and tools and networks that can take ideas forward. The vision behind Academic Advisors, or Resident Scholars, or even Political Advisors in the NATO format, has to be the integration of planning and operations with insights and input from research worlds: their role is not simply the provision of personal views, but the active expansion of external and internal networks, connecting people, creating new initiatives and locating emerging expertise.

And finally, this has to be a rewarding effort. Call it human nature, or call it how both worlds are structured, the more rewarding an effort is for career enhancement and personal recognition, the more effective and dynamic it gets, and the more it attracts people and funding and ideas that can generate leaps forward. It is not that difficult to enable this. There is already a trend in the militaries to include academic development and conceptual work in assessments and promotions and beyond formal recognition, chances to be noticed and engaged with senior or important figures. In the academic world too pressure to demonstrate impact and engagement with practitioners is increasing. Engagement with the defence world, being acknowledged for input and efforts, and research funding made available would attract, but, importantly, would also communicate an affirmative message that it all matters beyond mere personal interest.

In an ideal world, everyone would reach a point when they cannot imagine having an effective defence without bridging the gap between ‘insight on’ and ‘response to’ challenges. Already it is hard to imagine effective responses, national resilience and whole-society responses or approaches to sub-threshold threats, disinformation or speedy technological leaps without bringing those who are tasked with responding to these issues together with those who spend years researching and reflecting upon them. Thankfully, very few people in military and academic worlds today would say the engagement between the two worlds is not vital. Now it is the time to move on to the next level, to move from acknowledging this and leaving such engagement to find its own way, with concomitant successes and failures, into a much more established world of robust and productive relationships and synergies.