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Neil Narang Joins IGCC as Research Director

September 02, 2020
Neil Narang


Neil Narang, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara, joins IGCC as Research Director, after having served IGCC in various roles since 2013. An expert in international relations, international security, and conflict management, here he talks with IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler about his vision for IGCC, new research on the future of alliances, and why using research to engage in policy work is so vital.

You are joining IGCC as a Research Director, after serving on the steering committee since 2016. What’s your vision for the next phase of IGCC?

In the short term, my vision for IGCC is to support Tai’s vision as Director. Tai has done a really masterful job of keeping IGCC’s mission alive through very tough financial times, including by maintaining the doctoral fellowship program and summer programing. IGCC has a big legacy to keep up, and Tai has not only managed to maintain the Institute, he has expanded the mission in important ways. So, in the short term, I want to see how I can help him keep IGCC thriving.

In the longer term, I’d like to see IGCC become more like some of the other university based centers around the country, like CISAC at Stanford or Belfer at Harvard. IGCC is unique in that it represents a giant, vibrant UC system, and I can imagine a day where we have enough funding to run robust senior fellow, visiting fellow, postdoctoral fellow, pre-doctoral, and undergraduate fellow programs, and support more academic research programing. I would also like to see IGCC do more outreach within the state, acting as resource to help Californians understand the policy world around them.

One of your current research projects is on the future of alliances. Tell me about it.

Currently, the U.S. maintains dozens of military alliances that range from conventional assurances to nuclear umbrellas. There are important benefits that accrue from these alliances, but they also cost billions of dollars to maintain and expose the U.S. to the risk of entrapment. And yet, existing alliances have largely escaped critical reevaluation for decades. One of the more controversial examples is NATO. NATO’s overall budget has ballooned at the same time that the U.S.’s share of the financial burden has increased. Is NATO—as it is currently structured—the optimal allocation of defensive resources, or is it an inefficient legacy of the bygone Cold War?

In collaboration with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Director’s Office of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, we are asking foundational questions about the role of alliances, and what they mean for U.S. grand strategy. We are also asking if geopolitical and technological changes have reduced the need for alliances. There’s a whole bunch of emerging technologies that will facilitate a lot of power projection, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance—without needing the same depth of alliances.

One of IGCC’s central goals is to use rigorous research to engage the policy community. Why does that matter?

A lot of people don’t appreciate just how important UC has been in national-level policy conversations. Historically, UC researchers have been at the forefront of national security issues beginning with pioneering contributions during the Manhattan Project and continuing through the Cold War. Scholars from across the UC system continue to generate a tremendous amount of important work on global conflict and cooperation that should help policymakers with their decision-making. And yet, there is no institutional mechanism through which cross-campus and cross-Laboratory coordination is facilitated and leveraged to the greatest benefit of the UC system, the state of California, and the nation.

As the multi-campus research unit on global conflict and cooperation, I would like to see IGCC help solve this coordination problem, including by deepening relations with the UC-managed national laboratories, and by establishing more of a presence in Washington D.C.

You yourself have straddled both policy and academic worlds throughout your career. What’s that like?

Keeping one foot in academia and one foot in policy work keeps me motivated. I love how committed academics are to finding something true, and I love the way that they carefully guard the gates to knowledge. Academics can be absolutely brutal and ruthless to each other. I get rejected far more than my fragile ego can bear some days. But the rigor and transparency of the peer-review process is what makes it more effective, and why it can be as rewarding as it is frustrating.

The policy world is a great counter-balance. Policymakers have to make a decision today with the best evidence available. They are obliged to move ahead while accepting large amounts of uncertainty. It’s much more action orientated, with time- and information-constrained people bouldering ahead the best they can. This can be rewarding in its own way, but it can also be frustrating for its own reasons, since so much of policymaking is based on little more than impulse and gut.

After over a decade of government experience with the Department of Energy at nuclear weapons laboratories and the Department of Defense both inside and outside of the Pentagon, I’ve come to an appreciation for how the two worlds can relate. Because policymaking moves forward whether policymakers know what the best answer is or not, academic training and scholarship can help discipline thinking around issues, weigh the best available evidence, and help identify areas of uncertainty and risk.

You were a PhD student at UC San Diego, and an IGCC dissertation fellow. Now, you’re back as a research director, a leader, a professor and a mentor. What’s it like being on the other side?

I owe a large part of my career to IGCC. I was a graduate student in the Political Science Department at UCSD, just across the sidewalk. Before this, as a prospective Ph.D. applicant working in nuclear intelligence, I visited IGCC’s website and was seduced by the policy work they were doing under Susan Shirk, including the summer policy bootcamps for graduate students. I would eventually participate in three of these summer boot camps and ultimately serve as Director of the Public Policy and Nuclear Threats boot camp.

Throughout graduate school, IGCC provided me with an intellectual home away from my department, where it was not only safe to ask about the more applied policy implications of my work, but actually encouraged. IGCC has always represented a place like that—a place grounded in real world policy problems and committed to introducing students to the world of foreign policy. This is not easy to accomplish in California, which can seem really remote from Washington D.C and foreign policy debates.

I was also a recipient of two fellowships through IGCC. Both provided pivotal funding for me during the Great Recession, when research funding had dried up across the country and new academic jobs had disappeared. For many graduate students like me over the last three decades, these financial resources mean the difference between me finishing and not finishing.

Being on the other side is a really surreal and wonderful experience. For the last three years I have been on the steering committee, and had the privilege of advising Tai and the staff, but have also been able to take part in reviewing graduate student proposals for the doctoral dissertation fellowship. To be part of the process of giving grants out to the next generation of scholars is probably the most professionally satisfying part of my year. Now, as research director I have an opportunity to direct programs and help facilitate the interest of future generations. Given my own experience with how profound the impact IGCC can be, I don’t take any of these responsibilities lightly. It’s a huge privilege.

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