Making social science accessible

22 Jun 2021

Politics and Society

This Reflecting on Brexit piece is part of our #EUref5yrsOn series.

Brexit has unsettled the UK. It revealed a population at odds with itself, lacking self-understanding. How have the social sciences responded?

Making a positive case for social science impact on Brexit is a tough brief. Whatever your preference about the UK leaving the EU, the process was always abrasive and often toxic.

If some academics plunged into the politics, others were dragged into noxious waters. Brexit hardly turned out as an exercise in considered, evidence-based policy making.

Brexit begged profound questions of the social sciences. It also offered novel opportunities to contribute to public debate and policy development processes. Universities are increasingly preoccupied with their wider social responsibilities, but, along with the Government, they operate with a deeply flawed model of social science ‘impact’.

‘Lone genius’ narratives connecting a particular research breakthrough to some social or policy outcomes are hard to shake off. The ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) tends to emphasize single disciplines and discrete impact ‘case studies’

Looking back, the febrile period of the last five years shows a different picture.

From the vantage point of coordinating the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) ‘Governance after Brexit’ programme, and working with its other Brexit projects – including the UK in a Changing Europe initiative – the accent has been on collaboration: across projects, disciplines and institutions.

Made up of 17 projects funded in two phases (ten started in 2019, seven more in 2021), Governance after Brexit digs into the causes and consequences of leaving the EU, setting them in a longer-term perspective.

Originally planned to follow on from the UK in a Changing Europe, Brexit’s ‘unsettled’ character led both being extended. The second phase of Governance after Brexit was delayed (with projects now running until the end of 2023). The two have run in parallel since early 2019.

The UK in a Changing Europe applies cutting-edge social science to Brexit’s challenges and opportunities. Its mission encompasses communication with wide public audiences and spreading research-based social science expertise among policymakers.

Successive waves of Senior Fellows from a range of disciplines have supported its hub at Kings College, London. After the referendum the ESRC quickly commissioned 25 ‘Brexit Priority Grants’. In the field from May 2017, these projects addressed the referendum result’s immediate implications – an outcome for which David Cameron had blocked Whitehall preparations.

Governance after Brexit’s first phase was designed in 2018, when Brexit was fiercely contested and deeply uncertain.  ‘Is it right’, an academic colleague asked during the commissioning process, ‘to have a programme on governance ‘after Brexit’?’

The UK might never leave the EU’. But by then Brexit had already transformed the UK. The projects were designed to be robust against a variety of possible Brexit outcomes. Reversing the choice to would have changed the projects, without undermining their value.

The programme called for innovative projects and made space for research on particular places and groups of people. Many used ethnographic methods, speaking to people on the ground across the UK.

Projects focus variously on northern English towns or cities and on Northern Ireland, on ‘groups’ like farmers and UK-based EEA nationals, or using the lenses of family life or health governance.

Other projects developed novel methods – such as deliberative approaches to opinion polling, or for analysis of geographical indications for agricultural products and of online hate-speech.

2019 was not an easy year to start projects on Brexit. Its disputatious processes dominated public life; unsurprisingly they spilled into the research. Participants didn’t want their faces filmed. Many families worked hard not to ‘fall out’ over Brexit – the resulting exhaustion as revealing as Brexit anger.

The programme’s second phase was postponed until Brexit’s general outline emerged. A great deal remained, and remains, in flux.

New projects focus on Northern Ireland’s political and economic position, UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, the Brexit divide in public attitudes, Westminster democracy and UK trade and economic performance.

Overall, the programme encompasses a diversity of disciplines – anthropology and geography, sociology and political science, law and economics. It draws on ethnographies, histories and legal analyses, data science and experimental surveys. New sociological, political and economic datasets are being created.

The research is widely used well beyond central government, including by community groups and local authorities, the police and health service providers.

For about a decade REF has defined ‘impact’ as ‘the effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. So far, so good. But LSE researchers Simon Bastow, Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler show single-discipline ‘case studies’ capture social sciences impact poorly.

Societal research, they say, ‘must be timely, produced speedily, capturing the salient features of a situation … that may shift quickly’.

‘All applied and impactful academic knowledge must also be ‘translated’ from single-discipline silos: ‘bridged and integrated with the insights of other disciplines … assimilated into a joined-up picture so as to adequately encompass real world situations.’ Programmes like Governance after Brexit aim to work beyond disciplinary silos.

Social science also needs to be ‘communicated or transferred to non-academic people and organizations, and their lessons mediated, deliberated and drawn out in usable ways.’ Though rightly critical of ‘lone genius’ narratives, Bastow, Dunleavy and Tinkler may overemphasize structures and downplay agency.

Ably led by Anand Menon, the UK in a Changing Europe has developed a distinctive platform for interdisciplinary social science ‘impact’. Its core team has the established strong relationships, particularly in the media, Whitehall and Westminster and across the political parties, essential for the mediation and wider communication of social science ‘lessons’.

The UK in a Changing Europe takes its expertise from academic social science, starting with its Senior Fellows and the Brexit Priority Grants. It draws on a wider range of disciplines and methods through other projects, including in Governance after Brexit.

The UK in a Changing Europe aims develop as a platform for an ever-wider range of social scientists interested in public communication or engaging with policy. Ultimately, though, its success is based on the collective, interdisciplinary strength of the social sciences.

By Professor Dan Wincott, research director at the UK in a Changing Europe.


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