14 October 2019

How the EU created a cadre of loyal academics

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The nature of the EU’s PR machinery is varied and complex. Some of it is open and direct – the Commission’s spinners selling the official EU line for example. Other aspects are discreet, such as the standard contractual obligation for recipients of development aid to publicise the EU’s role as the corporate donor, right down to definitions of format and font size to be used otherwise the grant has to be repaid. Then there are the more pernicious aspects, intended to mould opinion -formers – directly, or by gravity.

As we run into the (hopefully) final lap of the Brexit marathon, we might keep these influences at the back of our mind as we spy various spokesmen and commentators step forward to pronounce on events. Has the journalist been a recipient of the EU Health Prize for Journalists, the EU Journalist Award, its Lorenzo Natali Prize, or a Prix Europa Festival prize? Has a speaker on freedom of movement been captured by the system – a professional architect who has been in the running for a Mies van der Rohe award; a writer who won an EU Prize for Literature; a council leader who received the Melina Mercouri prize or the European Prize for Innovation in Public Administration; or an administrator who scooped the Social Innovation Prize?

Far more frequently, the footprint has been less obvious. EU positivity is moulded from years of association born not simply of certification, but of financing. The EU is a massive donor and awarder of grants, even if it is not of course handing out its own money. But the association of grant and grantee, in fields and subjects chosen by the EU’s civil service, under systems run by its fellow travellers, encourages the recruitment, the development, and the progression of a pro-EU cadre – whether they are fully aware of it or not.

This is particularly clear with respect to academics, from whom over October we can expect to hear a great deal as they are drafted in to act as commentators.

The problems arising from the EU funding academic research are several. Firstly, the bidding system and scale of money available inevitably risks skewing academic research along the EU’s pro-integration priorities. Secondly, the selection points and networking system heavily risks openly pushing bids and bidders themselves along pro-EU lines. Thirdly, the nature of the inducements generates an elite of EU-specialists, whose starting point is one of explaining rather than challenging the process, and who are self-recruited from pro-EU academics. It also then supports the career progression of those professionals, bridging academia, thinktanks, governance, and the private sector. Finally, gratitude for past grants plus the prospect of further ones can only encourage a measure of professional hostility to Euroscepticism.

In other words, the mass funding scheme supports the creation of a pro-EU elite that has, to varying degrees, bought into supporting the system and professionally engaging with it – which to be fair is precisely why the funding streams were originally set up. Collectively these features help account for pro-Remain support in many of our ivory towers.

In practice of course, the same amount of grant money could after Brexit be awarded by UK grant bodies, continuing to cooperate internationally, since the UK is a net donor to the EU budget. In any event, cooperation would be better achieved through less institutionally politicised bodies, including the Council of Europe.

In December 2016, we conducted a major audit of UK universities and institutions in the Social Sciences receiving EU grants. We’ve gone back into the listings system to find out what, if anything, has changed.

We reached four conclusions.

Firstly, large amounts of money have continued to be deployed. One project, with the unexpected objective of setting up a Mixing and Dubbing catalogue for rappers, received an EU contribution of € 2,979,055. Meanwhile, €3,332,585 went on a project to “develop a protocol for the creation and/or selection of dance sequences drawn from different dance styles and appropriate for different teaching and learning modalities that can provide the base content for the capture, cataloguing and analysis of dance movement for the creation of different interactive and immersive learning tools.” These figures are on the larger side but the size of grants is typically six digits.

Secondly, there is a continued risk of subject matter gravitational pull towards areas of Commission rather than UK national interest. €2,499,950 went towards a project to help ensure “The EU will also be more visibly positioned as a global thought leader in exploiting science and science diplomacy for the benefit of foreign policy and society”. A similar amount went into researching ‘A Dynamic Economic and Monetary Union’.

Thirdly, some of the funding is still somewhat peculiar. Often this is because of the research area chosen which in the cold light of morning makes for an interesting bus stop conversation, such as the grant for ‘Dangerous Masculinities: Young Men in Italian Cinema of the 1940s-1960s’. We leave that to one side because of the value of research for its own value.

For instance, work done on the “E-taxonomy of Sino-Himalayan Umbelliferae (Apiaceae): diversity, phylogeny and species modelling through new web-based tools” takes a fascinating approach as it “addresses fundamental gaps in our knowledge on the diversity and eco-biogeography of Sino-Himalayan Umbelliferae, commonly known as the carrot or parsley family”. We do not pretend to know the answer as to whether the advance in human knowledge is worth the price tag of €309,235.20 – though it would be of real interest to learn how that breaks down and who exactly benefits.

However, in some cases the proposal also appears to carry a measure of political baggage. ‘Exploring Anti-Gentrification Practices and policies in Southern European Cities’ in particular pledges that “the research findings will be also rendered in forms of an anti-gentrification toolkit that will provide the basic tools that local communities can draw on to fight gentrification and concrete ideas for policy makers”. Separately, it would be valuable to learn if any marginal bias has crept in by EU support of topics such as “Savage Warfare: A Cultural History of British and American Colonial Campaigns 1885-1914”, bearing in mind the EU’s self-declared status as being a force for moral good in a post-Imperial world.

Examples such as the latter also encourage us to think whether value is being added by the EU funding association. This is unclear for instance with ‘Restoration and Faith: practicing religion and conservation in Mexico’s historic churches’, or ‘Human-animal interactions in early sedentary and urban societies in the Near East and northern Africa: microarchaeology of livestock dung’.

Indeed, some seem relevant only for UK-based research, such as ‘The Colours of the Past in Victorian England’, and ‘Funerals as public Services in long Eighteenth century London’. Nor is it clear what specifically EU-added value is gained from sending a UK-based researcher on secondment to the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of the Emotions for one year, at a cost of € 280,965.40.

You might think £3 million ought not be spent on networking for choreographers or £200,000 on fighting gentrification. But at least with Brexit the decision in the future can be made by a British grants panel, rather than academic proxies shadowing the European Commission’s own political ambitions. Perhaps anyone now appearing on television, worrying about whether they will keep getting funding after Brexit, can take comfort from that reassurance

You can find the paper with its full listings here.

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Dr Lee Rotherham is Director of The Red Cell, a Brexit think tank.