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Fiona fox's blog

reflections on the referendum

This has been a bruising week for the scientific community. Many I spoke to describe going through something like the stages of grief, moving through shock, sadness, and anger to recrimination and blame. Few have reached resignation yet and editorials urging the community to reflect on what we could have done better feel like they have come too soon for some. As one scientist memorably said to me in a previous polarised row, ‘Fiona it’s too soon for nuance’.

As my blog is about the way scientists communicate with the media and wider public I hope those scientists still in pain will forgive me for posing a few questions about whether or why scientists’ arguments did not sway the public in any appreciable way during this referendum. Or indeed whether that even matters. For once I have absolutely no answers but I suspect that just puts me in the same boat as almost everyone else struggling to understand the fallout and learn the lessons from the Brexit vote. In short, I think it’s never too soon for nuance.

The SMC ran three press conferences to allow science to put forward their case in the weeks up to the referendum and helped to co-ordinate joint letters, place opinion pieces and source scientists for broadcast interviews. Of course the scientific community weren’t the only group with advice on how people should vote but I was sad to hear speakers at our post referendum press briefing express frustration that the science case had not held more sway.

But I am not convinced they’re right. The SMC briefings generated some compelling headlines at a time when the public were already very engaged in every aspect of this debate. Plus we don’t know how many of the millions who voted remain were influenced by scientists. Thanks to Michael Gove we know it was not lost on anyone that the ‘experts’ were making their voices heard. Plus, as a news junkie who watched all the main TV debates, I heard both politicians and studio audiences refer to the fact that scientists were arguing for remain.

So if science failed to connect with voters it’s probably worth reflecting on why. I am with James Wilsdon, a science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield, who called on scientists to do some soul searching: “Here you have such a major question around which there was such a torrent of solid analysis and empirical evidence, and we’ve had a rejection of that by 52% of the public. That needs to provoke some serious soul-searching and reflection.”

So why did scientists’ arguments not sway many people voting last week?

Perhaps too many of the arguments put forward by science looked self-serving. The fact that privileged researchers in our top universities may lose out on millions of pounds in EU grant funding seems not to have exercised voters in the North East and Wales.

Perhaps, as New Scientist claim in their interesting leader, scientists used cold facts and evidence when emotive arguments were the order of the day.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the country decided other issues were more important than science. That seems pretty reasonable for a populace that may have greater worries, including the general disconnect from all government after six years of austerity.

Perhaps Gove is right and people are sick of experts. I doubt this personally. I know we had to readjust a lot of our thinking last Friday but surveys of public trust show consistently high levels of trust in doctors and scientists (way above politicians and journalists). Tom Stafford, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield, addresses this point in an interesting blog this week. He points to research which seems to show that people do trust the experts but not as much as the family and friends around them who more obviously have their interests at heart. In a refreshing attempt to get to grips with why experts may not have swung the day for the referendum he says, “For me and my friends it seems incomprehensible to ignore the facts, whether about the science of vaccination, or the law and economics of leaving the EU. But me and my friends do very well from the status quo – the Treasury, the Bar, the University work well for us. We know who these people are, we know how they work, and we trust them because we feel they are working for us, in some wider sense.”

Perhaps scientists are still just too cut off from vast swathes of the wider public. At a science party last week, which resembled a wake, eminent scientists volunteered proudly that they had not met a single person who voted Leave. But is that really something to boast about? Does it not simply reveal that despite all our collective enthusiasm for public engagement and ‘science and society’ we are still only engaging with certain sections of that society?

So what now? While some scientists are still in mourning and others are urging politicians to overturn or ignore the result, our science and medical journals seem to have moved more quickly to accepting the vote and suggesting ways for scientists to re-connect with wider society.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, called on scientists to try to understand the origin of the discontent shown by voters which was in his view ‘unfairness’. He called on scientists to go out and argue for ‘a more generous spirit in our public worlds’ and a more ‘constructive internationalism that recognises that there is a slowly emerging world society that will depend on our full participation and engagement’. The BMJ took a similar tone urging medics to move beyond the ‘blame game’ and ‘make the case for a much fairer and more equal society’.

New Scientist argued that the referendum was a slap in the face for those who believe in facts and evidence: “The willingness to bend, ignore or invent facts was depressing and shameful”. Provocatively they argue that scientists need to learn to engage with emotion: “If experts want the debate to be fought in the real world, they need to learn to speak the emotional language of the victors.”

I don’t know the answer any more than anyone else but I think scientists should enter these debates in this unprecedented time of self-reflection and re-assessment. Of course the leaders of science must now focus on the practicalities, getting the best deal out of any new arrangements and shouting from the rooftops that UK science remains open for business. But I hope they also find time to reflect on the lessons for public engagement. I was delighted to hear that Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, reminded the scientific audience of Jo Johnson’s talk last week that more than half of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave the EU – adding the powerful message that science will not thrive if it does not have the support of wider society.

I disagree with New Scientist that scientists need to inject dry facts with emotion and I am wary of the view amongst many scientists I speak to that that the referendum saw evidence and reason on one side and emotion and ignorance on the other. But I agree that things other than facts mattered in this referendum, including long-held values and principles on both sides of this debate.

I do however passionately agree with New Scientist that while the referendum is over the arguments are not. As Sarah Main from CaSE said very movingly at our post referendum briefing, science more than any other sector embodies the values of internationalism, universalism, diversity and collaboration. I agree…so let’s find better ways of communicating those values to the wider public and play our part in shaping the future today.


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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