Clash of Opinions: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The “Brexit” debate has generated a lot of controversy.  It seems that everyone from world leaders to celebrities have expressed opinions on the matter, the markets have responded negatively to the uncertainty, threats of war and economic collapse have been bandied about and numbers showing how much worse off British people will be whichever way the vote goes abound.

So – amidst all the fear, the noise and the shouting – how is the UK electorate to make a decision?  No doubt this will partly be driven by gut-feeling and perceptions (regardless of how they correspond to reality).  However, what people feel in their hearts will of course be tempered by what people know in their heads.

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, has recently published reports based on transparent and objective data to try to inform the debate.  Thomson Reuters was able to contribute to this by providing data on the role of EU funding and research collaboration within the EU on the UK research base.

Our data, which come from the Web of Science Core Collection, show that 13 of the 20 countries with which UK-based co-authors publish most frequently are EU member states, and a further two are countries which can access EU research funding through additional agreements (Table 1).  It is also notable that the papers on which researchers based in these 20 countries co-author with the UK receive more citations on average than their overall national average. (Note: The “NCI” designation in the third and sixth columns in Table 1 refers to “Normalized Citation Impact,” a measure that controls for varying citation rates in different fields, as well as for different years of publication.)

Table_1_Brexit Post_622

And, while the rates of international collaboration (papers involving co-authors from different countries) are not higher for research that is funded by the EU when compared to rates for research supported by UK funding bodies (Table 2), there is a major impact on the number of citations such papers receive (Table 3).

Table_2_Brexit Post_622

Table_3_Brexit Post_622

But what do the figures mean?  And what should people conclude from them to make a decision about how to vote in the referendum?  It is almost impossible to say.  It is clear that the EU is important to the UK research base in terms of funding and collaboration but it is not clear what the impact of leaving would have on this.  The UK might negotiate the same access to EU research funding as Norway, Switzerland and others.  And the vast majority of collaborations are based on social networks and inter-personal associations rather than formal agreements between nations, so it seems unlikely these would disappear overnight.  These data, along with the masses of other information that have been shared in recent weeks (some reliable some perhaps more questionable) need to be considered together.  There is no easy answer to the Brexit question but it is clear that reliable information, of the type Thomson Reuters provides, can at least make sure that decisions are well-informed and not just on the basis of instinct.