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Alumni Confidential: Idean Salehyan

April 18, 2024
Idean Salehyan

Alumni Confidential
Idean Salehyan in black and white against a teal background.

In our latest Alumni Confidential interview, IGCC program and research associate Olivia Chioffi talks with Idean Salehyan, a former IGCC dissertation fellow who is currently a professor of political science at the University of North Texas. Salehyan reflects on the need to keep policymakers engaged on “slow-moving, invisible background conditions,” such as climate change and emerging technologies, which impact conflict, migration, political and ethnic polarization, and more. He urges scholars to stay involved in work that targets a non-academic audience and to pursue research that motivates and inspires them, even if it’s less trendy.

Your work largely focuses on international and civil conflict, migration, and the intersection between politics and the environment. Each of these is a massive field in its own right. What drew you to each of them and what are some of the linkages you focus on?

My interests in migration and conflict are related. I started working on migration for Wayne Cornelius at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. I did my undergraduate thesis on U.S. refugee and asylum policy. There’s a natural segue into looking at the root causes of forced migration, so I ended up doing a dissertation on the transnational dimensions of civil conflict, which included a migration component.

My climate change work was a bit fortuitous. I was invited to spend a semester in Norway while I finished my dissertation. There, a conference was being planned around the topic of climate change and conflict, and I was roped into writing a paper for that. That snowballed into a series of projects on the subject, including with [former IGCC dissertation fellow] Cullen Hendrix. I’ve also done work on climate change and migration. But the intersection between migration and conflict has been near and dear to me. My parents left Iran in the 1970s, which made the topic even more interesting to me.

The fields you focus on are witnessing constant change. Climate change is worsening and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and drones are changing the nature of conflict. Are there any new developments or trends that particularly worry you?

Both of those fields are slow-moving, invisible background conditions that drive conflict, as well as political and ethnic polarization. You can also throw global pandemics into that mix. But since they are in the background, they do not get enough attention from policymakers.

The Department of Defense is worried about climate change and what it means for the Arctic, military installations, and conflict readiness. But it’s not as immediate as, say, the Russia-Ukraine or Israel-Gaza wars. We tend to focus on the latest crisis, and these longer background conditions are not problems that suggest an easy military solution. They’re issues that need the involvement of all actors in society, from businesses to civil society to governments.

We should think about climate change as a structural cause of violence. We need to talk about changing energy systems, new technologies, and the public health impacts of climate change, since these slow-moving problems are often neglected until they reach a crisis stage.

You also mentioned AI—it’s something I’m dabbling in now with my own research. I think [AI] is a great opportunity, but it presents threats as well, in terms of misinformation and cyber warfare, for example. But the government response to these things has been relatively slow.

We also need more than just a government response. We need corporations and the scientific community to be involved. That said, mobilizing a wide array of public and private interests to deal with these kinds of challenges has historically been difficult.

You were an IGCC dissertation fellow while you were a PhD candidate at UC San Diego. How did that experience help launch you on your current academic and professional path?

IGCC funding is essential for a lot of graduate students. It’s a competitive process, but it’s a great way to get resources while you’re writing a dissertation. It offers a lot in terms of networking with faculty and students across the UC system and opportunities to learn about other projects. When I was a PhD student in the early 2000s, the IGCC network wasn’t as well developed as it is today. But I couldn’t have done my dissertation work IGCC funding, and I’m very grateful for that.

You’re the executive director of the Peace Science Society (International) and are affiliated with several other U.S. research institutes related to promoting international peace and security. IGCC has a similar research agenda, particularly through our Defense and National Security, Future of Democracy, and Climate Change and Security research strands. What role do you see for research institutes and scholarly communities in affecting change?

There is always room for pure, basic research in the social sciences. That’s the inside baseball for political scientists or sociologists, where we’re interested in incrementally and carefully advancing scientific knowledge, and do so by publishing in peer-reviewed outlets.

However, if that knowledge stays within the silo of the academic community, there’s no good impact for the rest of society. Some people try to bridge that gap by working with think tanks or government agencies to inform policies in a more direct way; we also need to engage with civil society and industry.

Oftentimes that’s not rewarded or prioritized as it should be within academia. For promotion and tenure, we look for peer-reviewed articles in well-respected academic journals, and we’re not appropriately rewarding public engagement. But that’s something people with tenure, like me, don’t have to worry about. We can do that if we’re drawn to it.

Our primary role as scholars is to produce good scientific evidence. If we desire to communicate those findings to a broader audience, understanding the venues and approaches to do that is important.

Have you had any specific successes or challenges when trying to engage with a policy audience?

The work I’ve done with the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC has been very rewarding. They reached out to me in 2018 and I did a series of pieces for them on refugee resettlement in the United States. The background of that was that after [former President] Donald Trump was elected, he massively cut the number of refugees that the United States was admitting each year. We went from averaging 70,000 to 80,000 refugees per year to less than 30,000. This included people escaping places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where we had strategic interests in making sure that civilians who wanted to flee had an opportunity to do so.

I was part of the Niskanen Center’s roundtable on refugee resettlement, which ended up on C-SPAN. I also helped write a related report. It’s not a peer-reviewed journal article, but it was read and circulated much more than any of my journal articles had been and helped to reframe immigration and refugee policy.

One thing that came out of the reports—and this was not just my idea—was that rather than simply having the government and a few nonprofit organizations like the International Rescue Committee sponsor refugees and support them during their first few years as they adjust, we should instead create a community sponsorship model that would allow private citizens, church groups, rotary clubs, and other individuals to sponsor refugees.

Under the Biden administration, that turned into the Uniting for Ukraine program and the Welcome Corps. It’s now U.S. policy that private individuals or organizations can sponsor refugees. That has reduced the fiscal burden on the U.S. government, so it’s a good thing for taxpayers. At the same time, it gives refugees a community to tap into. When they come to the United States, they have people at the airport to greet them and help their kids enroll in school. It’s a win-win for all. I can’t claim credit for that, but it’s something that came through strongly in a couple of the reports that I did for the Niskanen Center. So, you can see how that impacted policy, at least in some way.

What’s a current project you’re working on that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m working on a longer book project on how the United States has used refugee resettlement since 1980. After the Vietnam War, the United States passed the Refugee Act of 1980 to regularize the process for admitting refugees. The book looks at how refugee resettlement has been tied to other U.S. foreign policy goals, from responding to conflicts in Sudan or the former Yugoslavia to evacuating Afghans after the Taliban takeover. I don’t think that story has been told adequately.

We think of refugee policy as a humanitarian, altruistic gesture. But there have been real geostrategic interests at play—rightly or wrongly—in crafting refugee policies to benefit the national interest of the United States.

Do you have any advice for young scholars who are also looking to combine multiple fields of interest into their work?

It’s extremely important for young scholars to follow their passion and not worry about some of the professional pressures that come with the job. I was told at multiple points in my graduate career that migration and refugee studies aren’t central to political science. But this is what motivated me, so I stuck with it and it paid off.

If you have a topic that you think is less mainstream, but it motivates you and is something that you think you can work on for ten or twenty years and make it your career, then you should go for that. It’s difficult to work on projects that don’t motivate or inspire you. If you can make a career out of researching topics that are interesting and meaningful to you, then it doesn’t feel like work. It’s enjoyable.

Follow your passion. Follow what truly motivates you. There will be naysayers along the way, but it’s your dissertation and research trajectory, and doing something that is going to feed into a long and happy career is more important than chasing the next trend.