It’s been quite a period for the UK in a Changing Europe, charged by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with disseminating the findings of academic research on UK-EU relations to as wide an audience as possible. It’s been exciting, stressful at times, but, most of all immensely satisfying as we have, I think, helped persuade the non-academic world of the importance of social science.
Early 2015 was, of course, a different world. The election had not been held. David Cameron had not secured an unlikely majority. The referendum had not been planned, let alone held, let alone producing a victory for Leave.
Three years on, and this is as good a time as any to reflect on the lessons learned during this turbulent period about the role academics can and should play in shaping policy and public debates more generally.
Doing impact and engagement effectively takes patience, dedication, and a willingness to build relationships, particularly with the media. It is also about developing a brand that they trust. It should be said that none of this is possible without adequate resources. Doing engagement well and on the cheap is not possible, and the ESRC deserve credit for recognising this and providing the funding to ensure we have an excellent comms team.
Creating a brand that is trusted has also been the result of the insistence of our funders of the need to adopt a strictly impartial approach to Brexit. It’s worth considering for a moment what that means. At its simplest, it means not expressing support for either side. Our aim has always been to inform and not to instruct. To give people the information they need to make decisions, not to tell them what to decide.
What it emphatically does not mean is that the evidence is concealed or doctored or parsed in any way. We have provided the findings whatever their implications might be – whether providing grist to the mill of the Sun, or pointing out the potential economic harm that would result from leaving the single market and customs union.
We have struck to this position even in the face of attempts to smear our reputations or insinuate that academics in general are fundamentally biased.
This has, on occasion, been far from easy. We live in febrile times, and several of us have been the object of abuse. However, it has not been as difficult an undertaking as some might assume. For one thing, we have engaged with our critics.
Michael Gove famously asserted during the referendum campaign that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’.
Yet he was willing to debate the point with Jonathan Portes, the two of them approaching something suspiciously like a consensus by the end.
Nor did his initial claim resonate as much with the public as some people seemed to believe. An IPSOS-MORI poll carried out before the referendum showed that, when asked who they trust on issues relating to the EU referendum, academics came out at 57%, second equal (with small business owners) behind friends and family. Journalists, for what it’s worth, scored 16%, while politicians came bottom with 11%.
And our experience bore that out. In the run up to the referendum we held some 60 town hall meetings round the country. We did not attempt to lecture people. Rather, we simply answered questions. And people from both sides of the debate, in all parts of the country, turned up to ask their questions, and were willing to listen to experts in economics, on immigration, or on law, and inform themselves about what the research had to say.
Now, of course, the focus of our activity has shifted. Since the referendum, we have been rather London focused, working with politicians and civil servants to make sense of Brexit and what it might mean for the country. Again, we have engaged with all sides of the debate, working with both pro and anti-Brexit MPs.
And what has been perhaps most striking has been the willingness, indeed eagerness, of civil servants, of politicians, of businesses, to work with us. I cannot exaggerate the degree to which Brexit presents social scientists with an opportunity.
Whatever form it takes, we will need to rethink not only our relationship with the EU, but also the political economy, and internal organisation of the country (devolution will almost certainly change in nature).
I like to think that the UK in a Changing Europe has played a part in convincing these various groups that social scientists have a lot to contribute to both policy and public debates. Brexit has revealed a different way for academics to work – and they have risen to the challenge.
And I hope that anyone who reads this blog, if their work bears upon anything related to Brexit (and let’s face it, most things now do), will think about using our resources to enable them to engage better with those who need to know what the research says.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured on the Economic and Social Research Council blog.