Educated in London and Florence, Professor Simon Hix believes CIVICA is a natural alliance of social sciences in Europe. In this interview, he sets out his hopes for the alliance in terms of educational exchanges, student support and research environment, pinpoints the big challenges ahead, and sets out the urgent need for social science expertise across the world.
And he’d love to see democracy re-imagined, with more online elections across Britain and Europe.
How did your own experience inform your views on the value of international collaboration and education?
I did my undergraduate and master's degrees at LSE and my PhD at the European University Institute, Florence. I have also been a visiting professor at Sciences Po and the Hertie School. As a political scientist at LSE, meeting lots of European students and researching European politics, it was natural to want to study elsewhere within Europe. In doing so, I realised we have a lot in common in the way we approach research and teaching.
Why did LSE decide to be part of CIVICA?
LSE has a lot of Continental European students, staff and alumni, and despite Brexit we hope to be able to continue to recruit Continental European students and staff. We like the current international balance that we have at LSE, and we’d be a weaker institution without it.
What signal does our membership send to other British universities?
LSE’s membership of CIVICA is part of our global strategy and part of having a world-class education and research environment. It’s a signal that there’s nothing incompatible about being a global, a European and a British institution.
You are part of CIVICA’s research work package, tell us about that.
Originally, CIVICA was set up under the European Universities initiative, focusing on education. But it seemed natural, as a group of leading research-intensive universities, to think about how we can build a vibrant research environment alongside our educational offers.
We already had very strong research connections. In the last decade, there have been over 300 co-authored articles by LSE faculty with at least one faculty member from a CIVICA partner.
In the research work package, we’ve identified four themes that CIVICA aims to develop:
1 – Societies in Transition and Crises of Earth
2 – Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century
3 – Europe Revisited
4 – Data Driven Technologies for the Social Sciences
Our first step is to create research communities for each of those four themes across the CIVICA partners. We plan to set up more seminars, conferences and interaction between our PhD researchers, postdocs and faculty.
We also just recently learned that we’ll receive additional funding under the EU’s research programme Horizon 2020. This top-up will allow us to build up a collaborative research environment and structure, and to take our research activities to the next level.
What are your ambitions for CIVICA, and how does LSE fit into these?
We are all strong institutions, but we can do more collectively. We can also learn from each other and share expertise. We can give students a more varied educational experience, provide more choice, exchanges and opportunities to travel.
LSE’s Pro-Director for Education, Professor Dilly Fung, and I are looking at how we might develop a four-year undergraduate degree with a flexible year, of studying abroad, volunteering, working, or even setting up a start-up company.
What theme would you most like to see the CIVICA alliance tackling together?
I’m particularly interested in the issue of how we reinvent representative democracy in the next few years. We’ve got a model of representative democracy that’s based on institutions that were largely established in the 18th century and it’s creaking at the seams.
I would love CIVICA to start thinking about what a new model of democracy should look like, contributing to an initiative we are launching at LSE, 'Shaping the Post COVID World,' through which we will be exploring this and other ways in which the world could change after the crisis.
For example, when I teach my students at LSE, my first-year undergraduates invariably ask, “why don’t I have an app on my phones for voting in elections?”. And I don’t have a good answer to that question. Over 40% of people in Estonia voted online in their last national election. We should all be thinking about how we can introduce similar practices across our democracies.
Let’s bring voting in local government elections online. Turnout would go up massively and we’d be part of a much more vibrant process. I’d love the next round of British local elections to be online and, although Britain won’t be participating, the next round of European Parliament elections in 2024 to be online too.
How do you see students and researchers benefiting from CIVICA?
The European University Institute, where I did my PhD, is leading on developing our collaborations on the PhD side. We'd like to build up a PhD community and create an architecture where it feels normal for a PhD researcher to draw on a team of people to supervise their research from across the CIVICA universities.
Ironically, by moving online over the last few months, it has become much easier to undertake PhD supervision from a distance, and to build up a research community between our PhD researchers and faculty.
For example, we have opened up our weekly LSE Department of Government political behaviour research seminar to CIVICA students and faculty and, instead of our normal 15, for the past few weeks we have had 30+ participants from across the alliance, asking questions or presenting their research.
How can CIVICA help with recovery from COVID-19?
When institutions began to lock down, the experience of our CIVICA partners helped our own planning. We’ve also started to share our plans for coming back in September.
On the research side, when we think about fighting pandemics in future, social science needs to play a key role. We need to help understand, for example, why some people wear masks and others don’t, why some people are willing to go into lockdown and others are not, why some people trust policymakers and others don’t, or how to make trade-offs between health and the economy, and so on.
What do you think are CIVICA's top challenges over the next year, and how can the alliance meet them?
One of the top challenges for CIVICA is, of course, how to deal with the COVID pandemic as we start the new academic year. Beyond that, we will start to focus on building up our student, faculty, and staff exchanges. Some of this is now easier, as we can interact online. But I don’t think any of us in CIVICA feel that interacting online is a substitute for experiencing what it’s like to live in another country, be part of a different cultural and educational environment. I think it’s going to be a real challenge to develop close links if we cannot physically meet and interact in our different universities.
What role do you think CIVICA has in promoting the social sciences internationally?
In the last few years there’s been a lot of talk about STEM. LSE has just been involved in launching SHAPE – Social sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy. This initiative is not anti-STEM, but rather is about making the case that SHAPE subjects also matter.
When you think about all the major questions that we are facing globally, the answers need the natural sciences and the social sciences and the arts and humanities to be working together. There are a lot of other outstanding social sciences universities in Europe, and we want CIVICA to help foster more collaboration, more community between us, so that together we can help address these global challenges.
Interview conducted by Hayley Reed (LSE)
Photo credit: LSE