Over the past few months there have been a number of media articles claiming that scientists overwhelmingly support our membership of the EU, but given that there are ~273,000 researchers in the UK [OECD Figures], do such claims stand up to scrutiny. Our understanding is that the majority of these articles seem to have originated from two polls, one by CaSE/EPC in Dec 2015, and one by Nature in March 2016. To understand our concerns about the reliability of these polls, we have to look at each one in turn:
CaSE and ERC Poll
The first survey was conducted by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) & the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), and the results indicated that 93% of researchers agreed that ‘EU membership was beneficial to UK science and engineering research’. Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers that these results were based on the contribution of 403 respondents. Furthermore, with no methodology mentioned in the CaSE report, we had to approach the authors directly for more information. It turns out that the survey was an online open survey, with email invitations being sent out to CaSE supporters – primarily UK Universities and Learned Societies – and EPC members – primarily Engineering Professors. The authors were unable to tell us how many respondents were scientists or engineers, and confirmed that no systems were in place to prevent multiple responses or to ensure that their e-mails reached a representative cross-section of researchers across UK academia and industry. It was also disappointing to discover that no polling organisations were approached to support or validate their methodology, and that no peer review was conducted on the approach taken and the results in question. Also, given the inherent uncertainty surrounding self-selective surveys of this nature, we have serious concerns about the robustness of the CaSE/EPC survey, and do not think that the results can be transposed to indicate a widely held view amongst scientists, as so many of the media have done.
At the end of March , a survey by the Nature Journal undertook a survey of members via email, a pop-up on its website and through social media. Although no checks were undertaken to validate respondents, Nature used 666 of the respondents that planned to vote in the referendum, to show that 83% backed ‘Remaining in the EU’. Once again, this was a self-selective poll, and even Nature admitted the following; “the results of Nature’s poll are not necessarily representative of all researchers in the UK and the wider EU”. Given the sensitivity surrounding the EU Referendum, it’s therefore surprising that a journal of Nature’s standing was so willing to widely promote a survey that would not have been robust enough to pass its own peer review processes.
There is no doubt that the UK Universities line is to support UK membership of the EU, but given that the vast majority of HE funding comes from a determinedly pro-EU government, it would take a brave vice-chancellor to go against the establishment view. You just need to look at what happened to ex-BCC chairman John Longworth to understand the implications of going against the government position in the current climate. In terms of the general view of scientists, however, we believe that the case is far from clear. Whilst we accept that a majority of scientists are indeed concerned about the impact that Brexit may have upon their existing research funding and collaboration arrangements, our own existence shows that support for EU membership is far from overwhelming, and it’s our belief that the two polls conducted so far are clearly not robust enough to support an accurate consensus amongst the UK scientific community.