Engaging with the Scottish Independence Referendum

This is a summary of insights gained at a Beltane Twilight networking event on the 6th March 2014. The session took place at the Scottish Parliament, and provided advice for researchers who want to use the Scottish Independence Referendum as a hook for their public engagement activities.

Donald Jarvie, Head of Business for Scotland’s Futures Forum, and Charlie Jeffery, Vice Principal Public Policy and Impact at the University of Edinburgh, were guest speakers at the event, and Scotland’s Futures Forum co-hosted.

Boardroom at Scottish Parliament

A view from Scotland’s Futures Forum, The Scottish Parliament

Scotland’s Futures Forum was created by the Scottish Parliament to help its members, along with policymakers, businesses, academics, and the wider community of Scotland, to look beyond immediate horizons, to some of the challenges and opportunities we will face in the future.  Looking beyond the four-year electoral cycle and away from party politics, the Forum seeks to stimulate public debate in Scotland, bringing fresh perspectives, ideas and creativity on how we might prepare now for the future.

The Scottish Parliament was viewed by Enric Miralles, the Catalan architect who designed the building, to be a convergence of parliament, people and landscape. The Scottish Parliament is an open, participative and progressive parliament.  The Referendum debate operates within this overall framework. It is of real importance that there is continuing engagement with all stakeholders. Not all expertise is found within the four walls of the Parliament, so it actively encourages engagement from outside. This includes academia and researchers. By doing so, it enhances the profile and reputation of the Scottish Parliament to exchange knowledge and ideas and to develop our relationships with others.

Civil servants must be impartial – and be seen to be impartial – in the Independence debate. There is a strict code of conduct to ensure this. It should also be borne in mind that elected representatives from different parties can and do work together in a friendly manner on a day-to-day basis in the Parliament.

The message from universities to their researchers

Universities want their researchers to engage on the topic of the Referendum because:

  • Universities are repositories of expertise that is relevant to the Referendum
  • The Referendum presents a fantastic opportunity for impact – what’s bigger than deciding whether to form a new country?
  • Universities have a core role in society as impartial, non-partisan forums for debate
Picture of Charlie Jeffery

Charlie Jeffery

Managing risk

Researchers can contribute a lot, factually, to the Independence debate. However, sometimes, journalists and politicians will twist what you say. There is no point in getting overly hung-up on this. Do your best to anticipate problems, such as leading questions, and think how you would handle them. Always be constructive, stay away from personal comments, and seek advice from your university’s press and PR team in advance (and warn them afterwards if you think something has gone badly). Beyond this, accept that what people do with what you say is beyond your control.

Do trust people to see through politicians and the media. After all, these are hardly the most trusted figures in society! And in the interests of self-preservation, don’t read newspaper or Twitter comments.

What if my research findings favour one side?

This is fine, as long as your research is extremely rigorous (as it should be anyway). Your findings may receive far more than the usual scrutiny.

Should researchers always appear impartial?

A university will never take a position for or against Independence, as this would alienate many of its community. Universities do, though, have no problem with their staff being political, and some have already publicly defended the rights of their staff to express their personal opinions.  Some academics’ names appear on public lists showing which side of the Independence debate they are signed up to.

Do be aware that making your political leanings public will make you more likely to end up in the middle of political crossfire. Therefore, while your university will probably support you, you need to decide whether you can cope with this sort of attention. Also, if you plan to publish research findings directly relevant to Independence, be aware that it will be hard for people to distance these from your personal stance, so you could limit the audience of your research.

Where should I engage?

If you are planning to share your academic research and want to reach the widest audience, it is best to speak at impartial forums (e.g. Royal Society of Edinburgh, David Hume Institute). If running an event, be sure to invite equal numbers of people from both sides.

The blog scene is becoming a much more widely used method of academic communication that allows you to reach a wider audience. Check out, for example, The Future of the UK and Scotland.

Should I use my university affiliation?

If you are saying something related to your professional role, then yes. Giving your university affiliation does not mean you are speaking on behalf of your university. For example, if you were writing a letter to a newspaper editor expressing your joy/concern about the effect Independence might have on research funding, you would probably use your professional affiliation.

If what you are saying has nothing to do with your professional role, then leave your affiliation out.

Picture of Donald Jarvie

Donald Jarvie


Four weeks before the Referendum, the Parliament goes into purdah. During this time, all routine parliamentary business ceases, and nothing is done to influence debate in either direction.

Academics are not generally bound by purdah. However, publishing something politically relevant so close to the Referendum is likely to bring you unwelcome scrutiny. Also, if you are funded by a UK Research Council, you should not say who funded your research if publishing politically-relevant work during purdah, as the Research Councils may be subject to purdah.

How do we get more niche, specialised topics into the Independence debate?

It’s likely that some topics of prime concern for academics in their professional lives, such as research funding or student fees, are probably not as important to the population as a whole. It’s hard to get more niche topics into the debate, as one side might speak out either way while the other is silent. Things you could try are: writing letters to newspaper editors; writing to party-political leaders; using social media; self-organising an event to develop critical mass.