Professor James Wilsdon

(Professor of Research Policy, University of Sheffield)

Recorded: Tuesday 12 November at the University of Auckland

Enough of experts: does Brexit spell the slow death of British science and evidence-informed decision-making?

The UK is currently on course to exit the European Union on 31 October 2019, with or without a deal. During the 2016 EU referendum, the UK’s science and research communities voted by a large majority to remain, and many have watched events unfold over the past three years with mounting despair. Others have added their voices to those of universities and learned societies in trying to influence the outcome of the Brexit process, through advocacy and membership of groups like Scientists for EU. Despite unambiguous warnings of the severe problems that will be created for higher education, research and innovation by a no-deal Brexit, these views – and those of the medical profession, businesses, farmers and many other sectors – are being swept aside, as the UK’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, prepares to deliver on his “do or die” pledge to leave by the end of October.

Prior to 2016, UK governments of left and right had steadily built up a reputation over 25 years for their growing commitment to evidence-informed policymaking, and for the quality of their expert advisory systems, as exemplified by the network of chief scientific advisers in every Whitehall department, and by a willingness to experiment with new approaches, such as the Behavioural Insights Team and network of What Works evidence centres.

If the UK does exit the EU without a deal, this will be its most significant economic and political decision since 1945 to fly in the face of all available evidence. So where does this leave science, expertise and evidence in post-Brexit Britain? At an immediate and practical level, what will it mean for research funding, academic mobility and international collaboration? More fundamentally, is it fair to suggest, as per an infamous remark by minister Michael Gove, that the British people have had ‘enough of experts’? Has something shifted in the British body politic, that is more decisive and visceral than a continued decline in deference to authority? And beyond defending its own funding and sectoral interests, what does the research community have to offer in response to the underlying economic and social insecurities and inequalities that led 52% of people to vote to leave in the first place?

In this lecture, scheduled just a few days after the expected Brexit date, James Wilsdon will explore what this unfolding saga means for UK science, evidence and policy. Will it will trigger a further unravelling, or can it become a point of acute disruption from which the UK regroups and renews? However much anyone may lament the result of the EU referendum, and however difficult the next few months and years may be, he will suggest that Brexit does not inevitably signal the end of evidence-informed decision-making, the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics, or the slow death of British science. These stories still have many chapters to be written.

James Wilsdon is Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Research on Research Institute, a new global consortium of research funders working to advance transformative & translational ‘meta-research’, to inform more open, diverse and strategic research systems. He is also vice-chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA). An interdisciplinary social scientist, he works on the politics and governance of research, and the relationship between evidence and decision-making. Over his career, in addition to posts at the universities of Sheffield, Sussex and Lancaster, he has worked in think tanks and as director of science policy for the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. His recent publications include The Biomedical Bubble (Nesta 2018) and The Metric Tide (HEFCE/Sage, 2015). He is a Fellow of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences, serves on the editorial board of the open access journal Palgrave Communications, and is on twitter @jameswilsdon.

Co-hosted with the SCiPoDS


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