Dr Lee Rotherham was Director of Special Projects at Vote Leave. He is Director of the new think tank The Red Cell.
Michael Gove famously, though unjustly, became known during the referendum campaign for his line that the public “had had enough of experts”. The true quote – once one removes the opportunistic interjection by the interviewer – is they had “had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” Gove also said: “The people who are backing the Remain campaign are the people who have done very well out of the EU.”
Both charges could be easily laid at the door of segments of British academia – especially, it turns out, particular acronym-laden ones.
It is certainly true that a number of British profs have personally done very well out of the EU. They have been well-funded. They have been given cv-boosting opportunities from outreach by the institutions. Conferences and events have been subsidised. A number of universities have been very generously sponsored.
There is, consequently, a natural interest in their asking if such largesse will continue after Brexit, but from replacement UK grants. The evidence suggests that financially it will. Not only has the Chancellor said so, but the UK is in any event a net donor to the EU budget (meaning the money to maintain it will be available), and the world-leading quality of its establishments means that it is a strategic partner of choice. The evidence also suggests that British negotiators are on the case, engaging on the other concerns academics have rightly raised as negotiating points.
But one also has to ask about the extent to which these funds have skewed the debate; have fostered the perception of an ivory-towered elite; have contributed to a rift between experts and much of the general public; and now risk maintaining a degree of bias today in the specialist advice that the Government will be receiving from certain quarters.
The last element in particular should be a matter of concern for all seeking a rational, balanced, far-ranging and ambitious review of the country’s options after Brexit. Those wedded to the previous status quo in principle will now be the most vociferous in defending the vestigial.
It is to help explore that risk that a new think tank, The Red Cell, launches its work with a major audit of Social Sciences grants from the EU. One might find the subject matter of a lot of the funding comedic and whimsical, and it is indeed a delight to learn that there is study going on in such fields as Medieval Condemnations of Philosophy as Heresy; Life histories of the Neolithic Transition; The Camera and the Political Imagination; or Young Men in Italian Cinema of the 1940s-1960s.
I am a former postgrad myself (I got further than the present UKIP leader did), and have no issues with the subject matter per se. Study is its own reward. But the EU‘s involvement becomes an issue as one considers the sums of money attributed to support such grants. On review, the overwhelming majority bear minimal relevance to the EU, let alone to cross-border academic partnership, yet here we find the EU planting its flag. What is going on?
There is a substratum reason why this has been happening. It is an openly-declared element of the EU’s planning. While the EU’s strategic communications strategy is particularly evident in its Jean Monnet programmes, a second order effect can also be in the impact of the wider academic grants process.
This should not be considered a controversial observation. The Commission openly seeks to recruit academics to act as “opinion multipliers”. The core research and teaching which DG Comms particularly likes to see funded is called “European Integration”. The clue is in the name.
If one still doubts the potential for waywardness, one might consider a report in a parallel field back in 2009. Robin Simcox in A Degree of Influence looked at foreign funding of subjects deemed by the Government to be “strategically important”. This largely covered East Asia and Islamic Studies, but raised the same principles of concern. It concluded,
“There is evidence that foreign donations have substantially and demonstrably affected the academic activities of many universities, and their handling of subjects designated strategically important. There is clear evidence that at some universities the choice of teaching materials, the subject areas, the degrees offered, the recruitment of staff, the composition of advisory boards and even the selection of students are now subject to influence from donors.”
While not suggesting there are exact parallels, if the risk of influence has been noted and in some cases even admitted in other fields (Libya and the LSE being a dire example), is it at least worth acknowledging that bias risk could have entered into institutions because of grants from another international entity – this time, the corporate EU?
If it is any consolation, my take is that UK academics taking the Commission’s Euro have often been aware of the prospect. They appear to have striven to keep it (directly) out of the lecture theatre. When engaged on Integration Studies, they have not seen European integration as an unblemished ideal, and are often considerably ahead of some of their continental colleagues in reading some of the Samizdat.
And yet, when they challenge EU policy, conference planners put someone on the platform who questions the form rather than whether the EU needs to have the competence at all. The EU is institutionally accepted as normative. Engaging with it is seen as self-validation. In those respects they still make for useful colleagues for the European Institutions, especially where their ambitions require outside endorsement.
I suspect bias in the core funded group is inevitable. Being an expert in European Integration Studies is like being an expert in, say, Gender Studies. It tends to attract people of a particular belief system, carrying with it an innate starting point for focus, perceptions, and assumptions. But what of the wider grant system? Showering EU largesse at professors in other fields does clearly carry the possibility of affecting perceptions (in various forms).
Bias risk needs to be acknowledged and taken into post-Brexit planning considerations. Because the Commission does.