The Woodrow Wilson School Policy Conference

Since the School of Public and International Affairs was established in 1930, the Policy Conference has been its most distinctive feature. From the outset, the School's purpose has been to encourage students to apply social science research to current problems. In purpose and form, the Policy Conference is different from a course, seminar, or independent work in other departments.

The Conference addresses an unfinished question of public policy, often characterized by rapidly changing circumstances, and about which available documentation will be both partial and partisan. Conference topics often blend domestic and international concerns, economic and legal analysis, scientific and political approaches, and ethical and institutional issues. The nature of the problem requires students to go beyond library research and interact with government officials and others who are actively engaged with issues addressed by the Conference.

In addition to its timely topic of research, another distinctive aspect of the Conference is its collective, interactive nature. The work of the Conference is often modeled upon the ways such research would be done by the staff of a governmental special commission or other independent investigating agency. The group as a whole is charged with tackling a policy issue. Each research paper takes on one aspect of the larger problem. Because each student's effort has implications for other members of the Conference, students must read and respond to each other's work.

After completing their own research, students have the additional task of persuading their colleagues of the soundness of their conclusions. Together they investigate the topic, combining information from individual research, guest speakers, field visits, and group discussion with the object of arriving at a set of recommendations on the policy problem. Individual students must go beyond dealing with what "is" in a given policy area, to ask what "should be." The group effort culminates in a Final Report which may be distributed to public officials, area specialists, and others in the public and private sector.