In 1742 David Hume published a brief essay with the rather remarkable title, That Politics May Be Reduced To a Science. Hume offered the possibility that "so great is the Force of Laws, and of particular Forms of Government ... that Consequences as general and as certain may be deduced from them, on most Occasions, as any which the Mathematical Sciences can afford us." The prospect of predicting political consequences, no less than any other aspect of daily life, was part of the 18th-century jumpstart on the human sciences or "the science of human nature," as Hume called it. The Enlightenment's hope to see humanity governed by reason and guided by knowledge was a project of such optimism that we might be tempted to dismiss it as hopelessly naive were not the human sciences today equally dedicated to calculating the consequences of laws and governments.
Whatever the cumulative force of knowledge and reason on international policymaking, Hume's reduction is about to be tested in new ways in the coming years. While policymakers have not had an easy time obtaining the latest scientific research and scholarship--given time constraints, insufficient staff, and the high price of journal subscriptions--today a small but growing body of this literature is showing up on their desktops with a quick Google search. A decade ago, Harvard professor Carol Weiss described the pace at which research made its way into policy as "knowledge creep." Today that glacial movement is accelerated by the steady stream of research that policymakers are able to find and read online. They can consult this work without charge or subscription, thanks to the "open access" movement in scholarly publishing. Thousands of journals have found ways to offer readers free access to their content, and hundreds of online archives make work published in traditional journals available at no cost.
The role of this accessible research in international relations will only expand with the increasing reliance on international tribunals to forge new relations and resolve disputes among nations, whether in the WTO or the International Court of Justice. While high-quality research is only part of the process of drafting briefs and submissions in this new form of international diplomacy, online information access is at a critical juncture. Researchers are quick to ensure open access to the data and research on hot topics such as avian flu. The larger, long-term question, however, is whether the entire academic community will support this incipient open access movement. At this point, with perhaps 15 percent of the annual scholarly output available in open access formats of some kind, a great deal of public access to knowledge is at stake. How the scholarly community responds to the opportunity to expand its influence in the years ahead will certainly affect the role of research and scholarship in international affairs.
One concept that has done much in recent years to promote the public and political presence of research is "evidence-based policymaking." It is an offshoot of evidence-based medicine, which has, over the last two decades, focused physicians' attention on using clinical research to improve their medical practice. With policymaking, the Campbell Collaboration, an international team of researchers, systematically reviews experimental research. It attempts to answer the questions, "What helps? What harms? Based on what evidence?" Healthcare is another area where evidence-based policymaking is taking on global dimensions. The Cochrane Collaboration, which coordinates systematic reviews of research literature by medical researchers, identifies global priorities for public health initiatives and health promotion policies.
It is not yet second nature for policymakers to consult systematic reviews of the relevant research. …