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At the Policy-Scholarship Divide

June 19, 2016

It can be a challenge for scholars to engage in policy debates, even on topics they have spent years researching. Junior scholars are frequently told that engaging with policymakers is a distraction from tasks that can actually lead to an academic position… and so should be avoided. However, many of us still engage – because we believe it improves our research and our teaching, because it’s interesting, and because we care too much about the issues we research to dispassionately stand back and watch as they are ignored or addressed badly.

Even if one wants to get into the policy fray, it’s often unclear where and how to do so.  As I learned in a 2012 project with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (which resulted in this series on international justice for OpenCanada), Canadian civil servants often want to engage new expert voices on foreign policy issues. However, they rarely had the opportunity to reach out to researchers and inform them about the policy dilemmas they face. Government websites tend to show the announcements of policies developed a year earlier, by which point it’s far too late to intervene. Unless you are already on the contact sheet of policymakers, it’s hard to contribute.

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For all these reasons, I was very pleased to see Global Affairs Canada partner with SSHRC to mount the International Policy Ideas Challenge 2016–a call for policy proposals from doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. And I’m delighted to have been selected as one of the competition winners.

My policy brief for GAC will tackle an issue I’ve been working on recently, on what I call the “digital extension of conflict.” It will map some of the new vulnerabilities created by our digital communications networks. Today a refugee in Canada may be thousands of kilometers from a war zone but, with her computer open in in front of her, she may be exposed to harassment, extortion and surveillance, or perhaps be named on an ISIS “kill list.” If she is an outspoken activist, she may face malware or denial of service attacks. My brief will suggest some ways that the Canadian government might intervene to address these vulnerabilities, and to empower people to promote accountability for rights violations or peacebuilding abroad.

See here for future updates. But as a preview, I will not be recommending that Canada create its own army of cyber trolls




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