By Jacob Ohrvik- Stott, Project Officer (Cultural Development)


Amidst the establishment’s post-Brexit soul searching, much attention has been paid to the ideological forces behind vote leave’s triumph. As the familiar story goes, a vote for Brexit is a protest vote. The referendum is no more than a proxy war between the haves and have-nots, with naïve vote-leavers cynically exploited by scaremongering ‘post-truth’ politics.

After the event, pro-remainers consoled themselves with the suggestion that leave voters were undergoing a collective buyer’s remorse, as news channels across the country broadcast footage of individual leave voters expressing sheepish regret

Much has also been made of the backgrounds of the two Brexit camps. Research suggests remainers are more cosmopolitan, more liberal and have higher incomes. On the other side of the coin, leave voters are older, more likely to be born in the UK and less likely to have experienced the enlightening forces of higher education. The battle lines are clear: north vs south, young vs old, working class vs the intelligentsia.

Common in all of these narratives is the picture they paint of those that voted to leave. The motivations for over half the UK’s voting population wanting to leave the EU are presented as flawed, with the implication being that leave voters are rash, impressionable and uninformed. Aside from the lazy stereotype, such analyses have a profound and worrying effect on the ways we choose to address the deep cultural divides Brexit has revealed.

For science, the idea that the public’s hostility towards the scientific establishment is the result of lack of education is not a new one. In this model, public mistrust of science is caused by a ‘knowledge deficit’, to be cured by simply providing scientific education to the masses. Despite the wide-spread consensus that this approach to engaging the public with science is ineffectual, the Brexit vote risks resurrecting these outdated and inhibiting ideas, undoing the progress that has been made by the scientific community in opening up science to society.

To halt this regression into a one-way ‘deficit’ model of communication, the British Science Association believes science needs to reassess the ways in which we involve our communities in science. In our response to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research consultation, we call for a reinterpretation of what Brexit means for the public and science, and outline an approach to embedding public involvement in science.

We believe that the concerns of leave voters are justified, and reflect a wider disconnect between the UK’s science community and the rest of the population. Rather than seeking to convince the public that scientists are right, we should be exploring the views of those that feel disconnected with science, and working with them to build trusting and mutually beneficial relationships. Exploring these social chasms may not be easy, and we will need to ask some tough questions of ourselves. Are we doing all we can to make British science as diverse as Britain itself? Is science elitist? Do we want science to be the preserve of a scientific class, or should it be a fundamental part of our culture?

We believe science is stronger working with the public than apart from it, and that public involvement with science will create the conditions needed for it to flourish. There is a key role for scientific institutions to play in championing public engagement, and we suggest a number of measures which could play a part in doing so.

We should prioritise public engagement in research institutions, and fund programmes that promote public-led discussions around research and science policy decisions. The scientific community should also expand and diversify, opening its doors to collaborative, community-based research and including non-scientists on the boards of research councils.

As a community we need to listen to the public, and engage in a deep dialogue to explore their views on the scientific issues on their horizons. Until we build mutual respect and understanding divisions will remain in our society, in or out of the EU.


The British Science Association’s full response to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research consultation can be read here.