The Grawemeyer Award and Progress in Political Science

Analyzing 30 years of awards

Awards for new ideas have been touted as a low-cost way to speed up progress. Political science in particular might be helped by a set of prestigious awards. We are famously lacking a Nobel Prize (for good or ill) and do not enjoy a lot of public prestige. While I do not subscribe to the critique that we ignore policy relevance, I do think we could be encouraged to devote more attention to original solutions to current problems as economists have. We tend to focus on tweaks rather than genuinely novel transformations (again for good or ill). And our current politics certainly seems to need some of these.

The Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order might be a solution to these problems. As the name suggests, its goal is to reward ideas that make the world a better place and it judges them according to their “originality, feasibility, and potential impact”. It further carries a large prize of $100,000. The founder, Charles Grawemeyer, in fact saw it as something like the Nobel, but better. It was to be broader than just peace and it was to reward specific ideas. For all these reasons it should encourage novel and practical innovations in politics.

On this occasion of the 30th annual award, I thought I would look back on the previous winners of the Grawemeyer Award to evaluate its legacy. What sort of people and ideas has it celebrated and can we find evidence of its role in encouraging progress? A list of the winners and their main contributions can be found at the end of this post.

A few conclusions stand out. 

  • One can see a fairly clear trajectory in the evolution of the winners. The early years of the award tended to single out well-known figures at the height of their fame, possibly in order to build up reputational capital. In recent years, the award has spent some of this capital by making awards to less well-known figures at earlier points in their careers. 

  • The award has also shifted from an earlier focus on international relations to a current focus on development issues. This makes the award potentially more practical if a little less sexy.

  • On the more critical side, relatively few of the winners, either early or late, put forward genuinely novel solutions to problems. The most frequent awards are for shining a light on a neglected problem or for providing evidence in favor of one extant solution to a problem over another. 

  • The winners also tend not to use cutting edge methods in drawing their conclusions and place a bit too much faith for my taste in the ability of international organizations to solve problems.

Nevertheless, I think the Grawemeyer Award has considerable potential. Its focus on individual ideas, its willingness to look beyond the well-known stars, and its large prizes all make it unique. A bit more attention to rigor, novelty, and practicality might make it even more influential. I’ll get into all of these points more below.

Who wins?

I’ll begin with a categorization of the winners. Tyler Cowen suggests that new awards will try to build a reputation. Thus, the first winners will tend to be “sterling in quality, not very controversial, and designed to generate maximum publicity” as this helps the award gain prestige. 

That appears to characterize the early years of the Grawemeyer World Order Award. The first ten years of the award (1988-1997) saw prizes given to some very famous political scientists – Richard Neustadt, Robert Keohane, Robert Jervis, Samuel Huntington, and Aaron Wildavsky – along with major institutional actors – Mikhail Gorbachev and the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. There were some wildcards in this first decade like Donald Harman Akenson’s God’s Peoples, the heterodox economist Herman Daly, or the Australian politician Gareth Evans, but overall the initial awardees fit the sterling and not so controversial category, even including some non-political scientist academics like the psychologist Herbert Kelman.

Since then, however, the Grawemeyer has taken a different tack. After a break in the award in 1998 and 1999 (I am not sure why), the awards in the new millennium tend to favor lesser known figures. They are still mostly academics placed at good schools (sometimes the very best though also American, Colgate, and Rutgers among others), but they tend not to be those at the very top of the profession. Again, this makes sense as the award could spend some of its reputational capital to draw attention to less well-known scholars or research. (There are still a few stars like Kathryn Sikkink, Philip Tetlock, and Erica Chenoweth.)

The more recent awards differ in another way as well. They tend to be more ex ante than ex post - that is, they award thinkers closer to the start of their career than to the end. The average age of the awardees in the first decade was 59 compared to 50 for the last two decades. (For a handful, I wasn’t able to track down their birthdate)

Cowen suggests that ex ante awards are best when “you cannot predict where new innovation is coming from” or “when the relevant creators are liquidity constrained”. I am not certain that either characterizes these awards. The vast majority of the winners continue to be tenured academics and the ones who are not seem safely ensconced in the world of NGOs (for example, Trita Parsi, Kevin Bales, Fiona Terry, and Gary Haugen). And the sort of problems that we might want them to solve do not seem hard to identify - war and economic development would be at the top.

What sort of ideas?

What about the topic areas that tend to win? The first decade of awards took the idea of “improving world order” fairly literally. The winning ideas included ones about nuclear weapons (Jervis), international institutions (Keohane), and even the “real world order” itself (Wildavsky and Singer) along with two politicians making the case for more international cooperation, an international environmental agency, and works explaining how to reach peace agreements (Kelman) and draw lessons from history (Neustadt and May).

The new millennium, by contrast, has favored development issues in the third world. Thirteen of the last twenty awards are primarily focused on poor countries. The main topics are now things like corruption, violence and development, post-conflict peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, ethnic conflict, displaced persons, education, and social and economic rights. Of the others, only Hymans on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Parsi on Iranian-US-Israeli relations, and Conca on environmental policy at the UN fall within traditional international relations.

What about the kinds of proposals? In an earlier post, I discussed the dearth of engineering in political science. Few political scientists attempt to create new kinds of political institutions or policies – things like quadratic voting or charter cities (see that post for more examples). 

The same goes for the winners of the Grawemeyer awards. It is hard to identify many of them that propose a genuinely new institution or policy. The closest that might qualify is Kelman’s method of Interactive Problem Solving, which uses third-party facilitators to bring warring parties together. A more generous standard might add Wildavsky and Singer’s proposals for a democratic caucus within the UN and Straus’s genocide early warning system. (Possibly some of Braithwaite and Drahos’s proposals for new global business regulations or Daly and Cobb’s multitude of ideas fit here, but I found both hard to parse and their originality unclear.)

Instead of engineering proposals, the two most frequent sort of contributions are those that point attention to what is characterized as a neglected problem and those that argue for the efficacy of one extant solution over another that is currently preferred. Many combine these two. (Note: In some of these cases there are other theoretical and empirical innovations, but I am focusing here on the main practical idea for improving world order.)

In the sphere of shining a light at ignored problems and arguing that we should devote more attention and resources to them, we thus have:

  • Violence as the key problem in poor countries and communities (Haugen and Boutros, 2016)

  • The persistent role of clans in politics (Weiner, 2013)

  • The problem of local violence after civil wars (Autesserre, 2010)

  • The different varieties of corruption (Johnston 2009)

  • The persistence of slavery (Bales, 2007)

  • The negative consequences of humanitarian aid (Terry, 2006)

  • The problem of internally displaced persons (Deng and Cohen, 2005)

  • Corruption in Western advice to postcommunist countries (Wedel, 2001) 

In the sphere of preferring one solution over another, we could list the following:

  • A greater role for the UN in environmental governance (Conca, 2021)

  • More aid for education as part of humanitarian assistance and particularly for local community schools in Afghanistan (Burde, 2017)

  • More skepticism about countries’ ability to develop nuclear weapons due to bureaucratic constraints (Hymans, 2014)

  • The greater effectiveness of non-violent as compared to violent civil resistance (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2013)

  • More support for local peacekeeping in postconflict settings (Autesserre, 2012)

  • More engagement with Iran (Parsi, 2010)

  • More support for institution building prior to liberalization in postconflict settings (Paris, 2007)

  • Best practices in dealing with displaced persons (Deng and Cohen 2005)

  • A greater role for the UN in conflict resolution (Evans, 1995)

  • More cooperation and less coercion in international relations (Gorbachev, 1994)

  • More moderation and compromise in democratic transitions (Huntington, 1992)

  • Avoidance of dominance escalation among nuclear great powers (Jervis, 1990)

  • More support for international organizations (Keohane, 1989)

Many of the works in both groups advocate spending more money and devoting more international attention to the problem that the author identifies. Paris, for example, proposes a new UN agency for postconflict peacebuilding; Conca wants the UN to take the lead in dealing with global environmental problems.

A smaller class of works focuses more on measuring a phenomenon or in one case showing measurement problems. Thus Fukuda-Parr et al. (2019) propose a measure of the fulfillment of social and economic rights, albeit one based on extant indicators. Daly and Cobb put forward an Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (along with a plethora of other policies). I would add to this category Tetlock’s book which shows through careful measurement how poorly experts are able to predict.

Further, there were some recipients that read like standard academic works, more concerned with describing and understanding or possibly demonstrating cause and effect than with ideas to improve world order. Here I would place things like Straus on the causes of genocide, Weiner on clans, Johnston on corruption, Kaufman on nationalism, Keck and Sikkink on international activists, and Keohane on international institutions.

Taking stock

I’ll close with some thoughts on the impact of the award. My sense is that the Grawemeyer is a bit of an underperformer given its mission and financial resources. (I’d note that the foundation gives out several other awards that I am less equipped to assess.) 

When I first learned about it a few years ago, I asked several of my colleagues what they thought about it. Most had not heard of it. And I have not noticed commentary on the award on political science twitter or the blogosphere. If the goal is to encourage scholars to develop ideas for improving world order, greater publicity might be a start.

I can think of some substantive reasons why the Grawemeyer might be underperforming. Most of the winners seem to express a liberal utopianism. They presume that we can identify a problem and then provide international organizations with resources to solve the problem. The award-winners argue, for example, that these organizations can take a much greater role in reforming national justice and education systems, in resolving local conflicts, and in strengthening political institutions. 

I am not an expert on these issues, but I am a bit skeptical that the international community is up for the job - both in terms of capacity and in terms of its ability to get a consensus for these missions. And this is without asking whether poor countries (or the leaders of these countries) are willing to give up the degree of sovereignty implied by these missions. The public choice critique of government action is not much in evidence here. A lot depends on good will.

Taking the award winners as a whole makes the problem worse. Few of the works consider tradeoffs. If one were to take the award seriously, the international community should devote more attention to environmental governance, genocide and ethnic conflict prevention, educational aid, violence reduction in poor areas, local peacebuilding, postconflict institution building, corruption, and resettlement of displaced persons. This is a lot and the international community has enough trouble with the problems already on its plate. That we should do less is rarely one of the options. One longs for a Bjorn Lomborg type to prioritize among these options, though I understand that an award given to individual ideas cannot do this.

It is also notable that these works are mostly throwbacks in terms of methods. Even as political science and development studies have increasingly focused on causal inference and big data, most of the winners are based on intensive study of a small number of cases. A few are popular works with an activist mission and no real method. This might be inevitable in developing new policy proposals, though as I noted above few actually propose new policies. In most cases, I was not convinced that the policy recommendation truly works as purported. Maybe they would and maybe they would not. I just could not tell.

They thus differ from the sort of development work taking place at the Poverty Action Lab at MIT (J-PAL) or Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), which are mostly based on randomized experiments, the style that has overtaken development economics. They even differ from much of the work based on observational data and published in top journals. Perhaps the thinking in not rewarding that sort of work is that economists (or those doing work with the methods popular in economics) have enough awards of their own including a Nobel. 

The award seems to be closer to what Branko Milanovic

recommends for the Economics Nobel in his criticism of the latest award for Milgrom and Wilson. He argues that it should be used not to reward the rich, but “as a signaling device so that young economists should study topics that matter to people’s well-being in the entire world.” The focus in his view should be on big topics that matter even if the work is not definitive or technically polished. He mentions the rise of China and the origins of the industrial revolution as examples.


I salute the Grawemeyer Award for putting its money where its mouth is, for elevating works that potentially have practical impacts on politics (rather than simply recognizing long careers), and for looking outside the Ivies for winners. Not many awards do any of these, not to mention all three.

But I worry that the award has gotten into a rut of rewarding works that have their heart in the right place, rather than ones that are hard-headed and practical. If it were up to me, I might not choose so many ideas that depend on a benevolent and activist international community. 

It would also be nice if the award followed trends in the profession towards greater causal rigor. RCTs are far from the be-all and end-all, but moves in that direction might increase the credibility of the winners. I’m curious what William Easterly, with his doubts about most development solutions, would make of the recent winners (at the least, he would be a good jury member).

I would also personally wish to see more engineering-style proposals. I am thinking of things like Broockman and Kalla on analogic perspective taking as a way to reduce prejudice or some of Glenn Weyl’s radical markets

An open question is the effect of the award on the careers of the recipients and on encouraging scholars to work on these issues. I did not track the winners’ citations and publications or compare them with similar non-winning scholars. But in my qualitative look at their careers it was hard to identify scholars whose careers took off after this award. And given that the award doesn’t yet have a lot of public cachet, I’m skeptical that it has inspired others to more practical work. Greater publicity for the award might be a way to generate a deeper pool of ideas even if not all of them can win.

Probably for the Grawemeyer to make a jump in this way, it would have to at once reestablish greater prestige - by again connecting itself with some figures at the top of their professions - and court controversy - by singling out ideas that are in some ways outside of the liberal consensus. Things like Romer’s charter cities, Hanson’s futarchy, or Bryan, Choi, and Karlan’s work on the positive development effects of Protestant evangelism. Alternatively, they might reconfigure the award to ask for truly original ideas in prespecified areas, whether peacekeeping, greenhouse gas reduction, or education.

Winners of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order

(Note: The second date is the date of publication. The citations are Google Scholar results from December 2020, not the year of the award. The description of the main practical takeaway is my own.)

2021 - Ken Conca, An Unfinished Foundation: The UN and Global Environmental Governance (2015), 103 cites. UN should take a larger role in global environmental policy

2020 - No Award

2019 - Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Terra Lawson-Remer and Susan Randolph, Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights (2015), 59 cites. The SERF index of countries’ achievements in providing adequate food, education, health, housing, and decent work based on existing indicators and scaled by the country’s GDP/capita.

2018 - Scott Straus, Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa (2015), 192 cites. The central role of ideas and in particular foundational narratives about who constitutes the citizenry as causes of African genocides.

2017 - Dana Burde, Schools for Conflict or for Peace in Afghanistan (2014), 88 cites. More aid for education as part of humanitarian assistance but only when the aid is distributed equitably, in non-stigmatizing ways, and in certain cases at the local level.

2016 - Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (2015), 95 cites. Paramount importance of reducing violence in order to reduce poverty.

2015 - Mark Weiner, The Rule of the Clan (2013), 71 cites. The persistent power of the clan in politics and the role of the state in limiting its influence.

2014 - Jacques Hymans, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions (2012), 168 cites. Nuclear ambitions usually fail due to failures in a country’s bureaucracy and bureaucratic culture.

2013 - Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works (2008), 610 cites. Non-violent campaigns are more successful in effecting political change than violent ones.

2012 - Severine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo (2010), 85 cites. Peacekeepers fail in Congo because they ignore local conflicts and bottom-up peacekeeping.

2011 - Kevin Bales, Ending Slavery (2007), 265 cites. Slavery is still a major problem around the world  mostly due to lack of enforcement of key laws.

2010 - Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance (2007), 474 cites. Iranian-US-Israeli relations were driven by realism until recently.

2009 - Michael Johnston, Syndromes of Corruption (2005), 1169 cites. There are four different kinds of corruption and anti-corruption policies should be tailored to each type.

2008 - Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment (2005), 2327 cites. Experts are not good at predicting though foxes are better than hedgehogs.

2007 - Roland Paris, At War’s End (2004), 3597 cites. Postconflict countries need to develop strong institutions before they liberalize their politics.

2006 - Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat (2002), 1056 cites. Humanitarian aid can sometimes prolong suffering and conflict.

2005 - Francis Deng and Roberta Cohen, Masses in Flight and The Forsaken People (1998), 633 cites. A set of guidelines for dealing with internally displaced persons.

2004 - John Braithwaite and Peter Drahos, Global Business Regulation (2000), 3733 cites. A blueprint for activists to counter the anti-competitive and anti-consumer tendencies of global business.

2003 - Stuart Kaufman, Modern Hatreds (2001), 1349 cites. The roots of ethnic war are in myths, fears, and opportunities.

2002 - No award.

2001 - Janine Wedel, Collision and Collusion (1998), 1377 cites. Aid efforts to postcommunist countries were corrupt and ignored legacies of communism.

2000 - Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders (1998), 16658 cites. The role of transnational activists in human rights, women’s rights, and environmental movements. 

1999 - No award.

1998 - No award.

1997 - Herbert Kelman, Interactive Problem Solving. Mechanism of conflict resolution using third party facilitators.

1996 - Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky, The Real World Order (1993), 628 cites. World is now divided into a zone of peace and a zone of turmoil.

1995 - Gareth Evans, Cooperative Security and Intra-State Conflict & Cooperating for Peace (1994), 216 cites. The UN needs to play a larger role in resolving intra-state conflict.

1994 - Mikhail Gorbachev, Address to the United Nations (1988) . Force and ideology should no longer play a role in international relations.

1993 - Donald Harman Akenson, God’s Peoples (1992), 351 cites. Ancient Hebrews invented a distinct culture based on historical and legalistic thinking that influences current Israelis, Afrikaans, and Ulster Scots.

1992 - Herman Daly and John Cobb, For the Common Good (1989), 7233 cites.

1991 - UN World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987), 9356 cites. Sustainable development is necessary and requires international cooperation.

1990 - Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (1989), 932 cites. Nuclear weapons change the nature of international relations and should lead to peace between superpowers, rare crises, and an easy to maintain status quo.

1989 - Robert Keohane, After Hegemony (1984), 14290 cites. International institutions are valuable because they reduce transaction costs and uncertainty.

1988 - Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time (1986), 1758 cites. Scholars need to take care in drawing historical analogies.