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ESRC project aims to inform Scottish referendum voters

The question of how will Scotland vote in its referendum on independence is one of the biggest constitutional issues the UK has faced.

But when polled, Scots will often reply that they do not have enough information to form an opinion, according to Professor Charlie Jeffery, who is leading an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project examining issues around Scottish independence.

The fence sitting is a result of voters feeling they cannot trust the biased information about the consequences of independence circulated by either the Scottish Government or Westminster, he says.

The Future of the UK and Scotland project involves more than 50 researchers at institutions across the UK, and aims to inform the public debate by shedding a politically-independent light on a range of key issues --  from questions around Scotland’s economic performance to the implications for the UK higher education sector following the vote.

The researchers aim to feed these findings through to voters ahead of the referendum on September 18 through a series of public events and media appearances, as well as through the project’s own website.

“It’s slightly paradoxical that the general public will say they don’t have enough information about the implications of independence,” says Professor Jeffery, who is also Vice-Principal (Public Policy and Impact) at the University of Edinburgh.

“The amount of information out there is huge, but they distrust the information put out by the politicians on both sides. That means there is an opportunity for academics and other independent players to engage with the general public.”

Through the project, the ESRC has invested a total of £1.3 million for seven one-year senior fellowships for individual researchers. It has also awarded grants of up to £200,000 to create seven research centres which are looking at a wide range of implications of independence. One of these, the Centre for Population Change, is examining how immigration is viewed differently in Scotland than in England – a factor which the Scottish National Party is already highlighting in its “Vote Yes” campaign.

The ESRC provided funding for the establishment of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change, bringing together academics from the universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling, Strathclyde and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

The ESRC has also made a series of individual research funding calls.  Applications for the latest of these, the Future of UK and Scotland Referendum Study, are currently being reviewed, with the successful project standing to receive up to £312,500.

Professor Jeffery says that the research generated across the various streams of the project would be beneficial following either possible outcome of the referendum.

“A ‘yes’ outcome would involve the many different kinds of change that you have to go through to establish an independent state,” he says. “If we are in that situation, it would be of benefit if the outcomes have been put under social science scrutiny.

“Equally, a ‘no’ vote doesn’t mean a return to the status quo - it possibly means the starting point of further devolution arrangements. If that’s going to happen, we want our colleagues to have thought about this.”

Professor Jeffery also said the referendum is largely unprecedented in the world – meaning research would have an important impact in the future.

“The referendum is quite an extraordinary, exceptional event – in all sorts of ways. It generally is if one part of a state expresses a desire to leave,” he says. “This is an exceptional opportunity for social scientists to do really new and interesting research.”


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