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HEi-think: Impact of Brexit on the social sciences

As the UK votes to leave the European Union, Academy of Social Sciences/Campaign for Social Science senior policy adviser Ashley Lenihan, and Sharon Witherspoon, acting head of policy, assess the likely impact on the social sciences.

 

Following Britain's vote to leave the European Union, Professor Roger Goodman FAcSS, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences, has said this will result in "uncertainty for the social science community, with implications for research funding, international collaboration, freedom of movement, and capacity building".

Until now, the UK social science community has benefitted from EU research funding and has outperformed social science in other EU member states and in comparison to other disciplines in the UK, as detailed in Professor Linda Hantrais FAcSS’ Academy Professional Briefing on the ‘Implications of the EU Referendum for UK Social Science.’

British research output has also increased significantly over the past 35 years, and for UK social science research this rise in volume is due in part to a rise in international collaboration. Research publications resulting from international collaborations have much greater citation impacts, and our European colleagues have been an important source of this collaboration.

At the same time, the UK higher education and research communities have benefitted from the freedom of movement afforded by our membership of the EU. Universities and research organisations have been able to draw on a pool of international talent, universities have recruited EU students, and ease of travel has enabled UK postdoctoral researchers to find research and teaching jobs abroad.

UK social scientists have also contributed to, and benefitted from, capacity building efforts within the European Union. Indeed, ‘the UK punches above its weight as a research nation’ in terms of its expenditure on research versus its impact globally, and social science research has been a particular source of excellence within this broader community.

In light of the referendum decision to leave the EU, the Government will now need to consider the implications for UK research in its post-referendum negotiations if UK research excellence is to be protected.

This includes the nature and structure of access to European research funding, which will be affected by decisions on whether or not we become an EFTA EEA country, and how we approach freedom of movement. A longer briefing note we prepared assessing the vote’s implications on UK social science discusses differences between some possible models, including the Swiss and Norwegian, for research funding and collaboration. Consideration should be given to the implications of any model for participation, funding, and leadership within the European Research Area and its framework programmes, including Horizon 2020. 

The Government will need to consider making good any shortfall in funding (the UK is a net beneficiary) in order to preserve UK social science excellence if the negotiated terms do not allow UK researchers access to EU funding as an associated country. Mitigating the impact on the freedom of movement of international social science research talent into UK will ensure that future immigration policies do not pose unreasonable barriers to entry to UK academic posts and to specialist social science research posts outside academe. Whether EU students will continue to have access to UK HEIs and on the same terms will also be a crucial issue the Government will need to address.

The UK social science community will itself need to mend fences following the heated debate of recent months, and consider how to continue and develop fruitful research collaborations with European peers.  At the same time, it will need to examine how to foster freedom of movement in an increasingly international research community, including programmes that allow members of the international research and student communities, particularly those hailing from the EU, to study and work in the UK.

 


 

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