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

University of Auckland. Public Policy Institute
Publication date:
12 November 2019, 12:00pm - 12 November 2019, 1:00pm
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University of Auckland, Pat Hannan Room (207-501)
Professor James Wilsdon

University of Auckland. Public Policy Institute

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.

Last updated: 2019-10-04