UK in a Changing Europe, funded by the UK Research and Innovation’s Economic and Social Research Council, explores the importance of communicating empirically grounded social science research
We live in times when facts themselves are increasingly contested and indeed distorted – think of that red bus and the £350 million prominently displayed on its side. Fundamental disagreements over the path the country should take, along with an increasing proclivity to play fast and loose with evidence, mean that high-quality, empirically grounded social science research is more important than ever. So, too, is a way of communicating that evidence to those who need it.
Develop a relevant research base
Since becoming the Director of UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), I have learned many things. The first concerns the need to develop a relevant research base that addresses the key questions. The scoping work we carried out in 2015 – before David Cameron had been re-elected and before, therefore, it was clear that an EU referendum would be held – pointed to significant gaps in our knowledge about the relationship between the UK and the EU.
After the referendum, there was, inevitably, a significant upsurge in interest in the issue. Programmes such as Governance after Brexit proved necessary to ensure adequate coverage of key areas, not least those issues preoccupying key user communities. Under the leadership of Dan Wincott, the social science research programme has generated an impressive array of projects on subjects ranging from hate crime after Brexit, to democracy in the UK, to the implementation of the Protocol on Northern Ireland.
Targeting different audiences
Having social science research is one thing. Ensuring it reaches the audiences who need it in a comprehensible form is quite another. And, of course, different audiences must be targeted at different times and in different ways.
During the referendum campaign, much of the work of UKICE was aimed at the general public. This was done in several ways. We engaged via events held around the country, where people were invited to come and pose any questions about the referendum to a panel of academics. We also worked closely with media outlets in an attempt to engage as large an audience as possible. There were inevitably limits to what we could achieve, and we are still figuring out, to this day, how best to appeal to ‘hard to reach’ audiences, which have earned the label for a good reason.
Over the eight years of its existence, UKICE has learned from experience some important lessons about communicating social science research effectively.
Partly, this is a question of tailoring outputs to audiences. To give one recent example, we produce a regular ‘divergence tracker’ which aims to assess regulatory trends in the UK and EU and the degree to which the two regulatory systems are diverging post-Brexit.
Even its author, Joël Reland, would, I think, struggle to argue that the study of regulatory divergence is not somewhat niche. That being said, the findings of the tracker are immensely significant. Hence we have had to come up with ways to communicate them effectively. Two methods that have proven useful are videos, and explanations of what we are doing, in clear and accessible language, in popular outlets such as the Daily Express.
I cannot stress enough that engaging effectively is not something that can be done on the cheap or at the last minute. Partly, it is a question of developing a brand. I like to think that UKICE has become a trusted source and its name a ‘kite mark’ for authoritative and impartial research-based evidence. This has taken time, but I’ve been greatly encouraged to see the BBC Reality Check team referring to our work as they attempt to fact-check claims about the economic impacts of Brexit.
Engagement also requires resources. It is about building networks and relationships. Journalists need to know, for instance, that you will be willing to talk to them – even if it’s 6 am – or can point them toward research that addresses their questions. Civil servants and politicians need to know you can be trusted to participate in off-the-record meetings and not talk or write about them afterwards. Contacts with stakeholders need to be recorded and tracked, and networks renewed. All of this requires a dedicated comms team that constantly strives both to find ways to release research in a timely and accessible manner and to ensure that the right people are informed about it. Here I should explicitly acknowledge that UKRI recognised this, and the ESRC had the foresight to fund UKICE to do just this.
Presenting evidence & facts clearly, impartially
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the last seven years has been the discovery that there is a real appetite – amongst both policymakers and the general public – for evidence and facts presented in a clear, impartial manner. This has been evident not only in the countless meetings we have held with MPs and civil servants but also in the sustained interest of journalists in our work and even the fact that programmes such as Question Time – that may once have scoffed at the idea of having a ‘boring academic’ on the panel – now routinely do so. This time of polarisation presents real opportunities for social scientists that we must grasp.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds UK in a Changing Europe.
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