In February 2023, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) launched its landmark Discovery Decade study. Drawing on polling data from 18,000 people and 14 focus groups, the study explores how different people view research and development (R&D), its role in society and its priority for tax-payer investment.

Ben Bleasdale, Director of the Discovery Decade programme, shares some of its latest key findings.

Attribution - Ben Bleasdale, Director of Discovery Decade, CaSE

R&D is viewed as important, but not urgent. That’s my eight-word summary of the major study of public opinion that CaSE has conducted over the last year. Through nationally-representative polling and focus groups, we’ve asked over 18,000 people for their views on R&D, the language used to describe it, its uses in society and whether it’s a priority for public money.

The results have reset my assumptions as an advocate for R&D and we hope the data – published as an interactive, open access resource – can help others too.

What is R&D?

As a term, R&D covers a huge range of activities, but all involve the creation of new knowledge, ideas or products.

When we asked people for examples of “research and development”, most spoke about consumer technology or clinical trials. These immediate connection points are important contributions, but if they’re the only visible examples of R&D then the public will be left with a misleadingly narrow view of the sector’s work.

Our Discovery Decade study has purposefully explored people’s attitudes towards the full range of R&D. We’ve gauged attitudes towards different disciplines – from the humanities through to STEM subjects. We’ve sought opinions on organisations involved in R&D, from public institutions such as universities through to companies working for profit. And we’ve done this across all parts of the UK, ensuring we’re not just capturing a view of R&D from one part of the nation.

Fingertips holding an illuminated lightbulb, surrounded by sketches of ideas

Public support for investing in R&D

There’s lots of good news in the data. Thanks to the work of the British Science Association and the UK’s many science communicators and engagement experts, most people view R&D favourably. In our polling, 70% of people felt it was important for the Government to invest in R&D, with stronger support among the over 65s.

This support crosses political divides, with 73% of people saying the UK needs to be better at science and innovation – a view held equally by Conservative and Labour voters.

Over half would like politicians to pay more attention to science and innovation, and when we asked people why investing in R&D was important to them, they told us that it could benefit future generations, keep people healthy and keep the UK safe and secure.

Who benefits?

It's clear that many people view R&D as important. However, this doesn’t mean it feels urgent, especially when prices are rising and people are feeling financially squeezed. Our data suggests that the benefits of R&D feel remote to many people – just over 60% either agree that “R&D doesn’t benefit people like them” or feel neutral or unsure about R&D’s impacts; peaking at 72% for those aged 35-44. This is a precarious position for a sector that receives substantial public investment.

When asked who the major beneficiaries of R&D are, “wealthy people” and “big businesses” are cited, and people view R&D activity as being clustered in London and South East England.

Without clearer messaging about R&D’s benefits and its UK-wide footprint, it could be seen as something that’s primarily for the benefit of wealthier people and happening in the UK’s wealthier regions.

It'd be nice to see some returns, or some evidence that the investment that we're putting in has created something. At the end of the day, it's taxpayers' money. It's our money. And we never see detail.

- Mechanical Engineer, 60, Greater Manchester

Amid a cost-of-living squeeze, R&D risks being labelled a ‘luxury’. When presented with a hypothetical Government proposal to immediately halve the R&D budget, a third of people were supportive. This increased to an outright majority when the cut was framed around tangible alternative priorities, such as lowering energy bills or recruiting more nurses.

In our focus groups, people spoke about innovation making everyday life more expensive, or generating technologies that were beyond the reach of most people – including those who might benefit most from them.

Many felt that R&D just wasn’t a priority, with 46% of people saying the UK should only invest more in R&D when “the economy is in better shape”.

It's almost a luxury to fund R&D at this moment. It would be nice to put other areas that the government oversees in order before we start spending money on possible, probable, maybes and maybe nots.

- Therapist, 63, Mansfield

Boosting people’s connection with R&D

To support the efforts of those championing R&D, the Discovery Decade study has collected data on three key areas that can help tailor our engagement efforts to different audiences:

1. Language. We extensively tested the words and language that best convey what R&D is. We found no 'silver bullet' term that immediately cuts through with everyone, but several of the terms commonly used by the R&D sector feel familiar to people. "Science" and "Research and Development" generated positive connotations in many people’s minds, while more informal terms, such as "New Discoveries", were poorly received.

2. Messages. We explored how messages about R&D resonate with different people and asked about their motivations for supporting R&D. Promisingly, many people see R&D as a relevant tool for solving problems in society, and welcome messages about the impact it can have on climate change and improving the quality of the NHS. However, some of the R&D sector’s typical arguments aren’t effective – such as rationales that centre around the UK “falling behind” other nations on R&D investment levels.

3. Messengers. We asked people who they would trust to talk about investing public money into R&D. Despite acknowledging the risk of bias, the public trusted R&D experts to make the case for investment, with researchers, research charities and universities strongly outperforming politicians, with businesses sitting in between.

Woman and man working together in an office, pointing at a computer screen

Looking ahead

We hope this new Discovery Decade data can help us talk about R&D in ways that feel more relevant and compelling to more people. The UK benefits from one of the best science engagement communities in the world, and this shows up in the public’s broadly positive view towards R&D. But this support can’t be taken for granted, and the R&D sector must continually justify itself when it comes to public investment.  

So, as we seek to engage people with R&D – to educate, to entertain, to excite – we must also foster a sense of collective ownership over it. The public have a multi-billion-pound stake in R&D, a huge and hard-earned investment into a sector that’s often hard to see in daily life. If we’re to change that, we must put engagement and communication at the heart of the sector’s future.

Explore the latest Discovery Decade findings

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