Panel looks at how to protect UK social science and research after referendum vote

7 July 2016

The Campaign for Social Science hosted a panel discussion on the implications of the vote to leave the EU for UK social science on Thursday, June 30 at their offices in London.

The discussion, led by Campaign chair Professor James Wilsdon FAcSS, featured a panel of experts from across the higher education and research community assessing how the vote will impact the UK’s status and relationship with EU funding and research networks, and what steps should be taken to protect UK research excellence.

The event came a week after the UK voted to leave the EU. A report by Professor Linda Hantrais FAcSS and published by the Academy and the Campaign in the run up to the June 23 referendum highlighted the degree to which UK social science is a net beneficiary of EU funding, at a time when UK Government funding has been decreasingly steadily.

Read EU Referendum – Leave: What next for UK social science
Read Implications of EU Referendum

Sharon Witherspoon, head of policy at the Campaign and its founding organisation, the Academy of Social Sciences, addressed the uncertainty arising from the referendum decision. “The problem is we are in uncharted territory,” she said. “It’s certain research will not be the tail wagging the dog” in all of the larger debates surrounding the UK’s negotiations with the EU, “but we must be clear about the fact that not only funding, but collaboration and leadership in research going into the future does depend on some freedom of movement.”

Ashley Lenihan, senior policy adviser at the Academy and Campaign, said there is a “stark decision in terms of what the UK government needs to think about, but it’s also really quite clearly dependent on freedom of movement.” The best option for the UK to continue to access to the European Research Area and framework programme would be as an associated country, she said. This would enable the UK to retain eligibility for funding, as well as the right to host and lead projects as principal investigators, though with no formal control over direction or content.

Associated country status would be achieved through UK membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), similar to the model currently in place in Norway, requiring acceptance of EU laws and directives, along with freedom of movement. The alternative Swiss model is more complex. Switzerland is a member of the EFTA, but not the European Economic Area (EEA), with EU law accepted in batches. A 2014 decision against the freedom of movement of certain EU nationals resulted in Switzerland being stripped of its associated status.

Jon Deer, Deputy Director of Research Division at LSE, said the Swiss model demonstrated that uncertainty over the status of researchers affects the ability to lead projects, as has already been reported in some circles in the wake of the referendum. He stressed the importance of pushing for clarity on what happens to UK social science “the first day after the UK leaves the EU,” stating it was most likely that the UK would become an associate member. The research community needs to think about “who are the other stakeholders who have something to say about the important place of social research and take that to the UK Government.”

Contested areas, such as the tension between immigration and the single market, will occupy much of the negotiating space in the coming months, according to Graeme Reid, Professor of Science and Research Policy at UCL. There is a challenge, therefore, “of contributing to the debate at all, because it’s not self-evident that the academic community is going to find it straightforward to have its say in a debate that’s going to be quite crowded by some highly charged interests.” This requires thinking on the part of higher education and research institutions about ways of “presenting themselves that increases the chance of being welcome participants in the negotiations.” While higher education and research has been “one of the most harmonious and mutually beneficial dimensions of our relationship with the EU,” to stand a chance of getting to the table, “we should put a pause on banging on about how important we are because there will be a long queue of people outside the door of the cabinet office telling them how important they are.” Rather, given the climate of uncertainty that will persist into the near future, the immediate priority is to “get to the negotiating table in the first place.”

Antje Wiener FAcSS, Chair of Political Science at the University of Hamburg, said British excellence and leadership in research networks stood to be lost. The case of Switzerland further demonstrates that an unwillingness to apply EU laws would have an impact on access to EU funding. She also commented on the deeper social and cultural revelations of the campaign, noting a “disinterest” on the part of the general public with facts, while there were ethical questions about the influence of polls on undecided voters. These issues cast light on the role of the broader research community both during and in the aftermath of the referendum, she said, urging social scientists and academics to engage with the tension that now exists between the “sovereignty of parliament [and] the legitimacy of a consultative referendum.”

Following the declaration of the result on June 24, the Academy and its Campaign published a longer briefing note outlining the implications of the vote’s decision on UK social science.

The panel discussion followed the Academy of Social Science’s AGM and Annual Lecture by Academy Chair Professor Roger Goodman FAcSS on The State of Japanese Social Science; Social Science and the State, and was the penultimate event in the Academy and Campaign’s Summer Programme. Previous events included a talk by John Curtice FRSA FRSE FBA FAcSS, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and Senior Fellow of the ESRC’s The UK in a Changing Europe programme, on how polling disparities throughout the referendum campaign exposed deep social tensions.

The Summer Programme series will conclude with a luncthime talk by new Academy Fellow Linda Woodhead FAcSS, Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Institute of Social Futures on ‘The Rise of “No Religion”‘.

Read EU Referendum – Leave: What next for UK social science
Read Implications of EU Referendum
Download the Summer Programme flyer