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Advocacy for R&D must be rooted in everyday realities

26 Oct 2022

The public values practical benefits above science superpower status, say Ben Bleasdale and Daniel Rathbone

Across the country, people are seeing an increase in the cost of living, as memories of the UK’s vaccine triumphfade. Against this backdrop, those calling for greater investment in R&D risk looking out of touch with reality andtheir sector becoming a target for cuts rather than commitments.

Unless we land our message with due sensitivity, grand ambitions for R&D will come up against an increasinglysimple question—what’s the point? At the Campaign for Science and Engineering, we heard this first-hand back inMay during our public focus groups in Manchester.

One 42-year-old pharmacy dispenser said: “We’ve been doing scientific research for ages and it’s not helped.”

And a 60-year-old mechanical engineer complained: “It would be nice to see some returns, some evidence that theinvestments we’re putting in have created something…At the end of the day, it’s our money.”

These focus groups were part of our Discovery Decade initiative. Supported by a three-year grant from theWellcome Trust, this project aims to help R&D organisations craft a compelling vision for the future, and get this infront of the public and politicians.

In recent months, we have polled 10,000 people nationwide to gauge the breadth and depth of support for publicinvestment in R&D. We’ve tested different terminology, messages and framings, and begun mapping where andhow research and innovation connect with different sections of the public. Once complete, we’ll publish this datasetas an open-access online resource.

These data can inform a more inclusive vision for R&D in society, connecting with a broader range of people toexplain how public investment is used and what it delivers. To survive as a political priority, such investments needenduring voter appeal.

Building relationships

That creates a responsibility to explain the point of R&D. The sector is well armed with statistics and modelsshowing how it powers prosperity. But return-on-investment figures won’t fire the public’s imagination. We mustshow how those numbers make everyday life better and show how R&D puts money in people’s pockets. Doing sowill help us build relationships with supporters who want to back R&D as a political choice.

Conversations about this vision have already begun—recent months have seen former Tory leader William Haguecall for the UK to seize R&D as a “national mission” and former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s Future ofBritain initiative place technology at the heart of its thinking.

But unless the R&D sector owns the conversation and moves it forward, the government’s nebulous ‘sciencesuperpower’ brand will continue to dominate. And we know this isn’t reaching or resonating with large swathes ofthe public.

Our conversations around the country strongly suggest that talking about the benefits and opportunities that stemfrom R&D, both immediate and long term, carries far greater weight than abstract, status-led rationales. Focusgroups have shown that people’s day-to-day struggles can make such abstract ambitions seem at best irrelevant andat worst heartless.

Another focus group participant, a 24-year-old accountant, said: “It makes me sad to think [Boris Johnson] isboasting about this [science superpower goal]…when there’s children going hungry.”

As we begin publishing these findings in the coming months, we want R&D advocates across the sector to workwith us on a clear, compelling argument for why our work remains an important political and social choice for theUK.

Former science minister George Freeman recently urged the R&D sector to redouble its efforts to make the case forpublic investment to the new government. By now, colleagues across the sector are only too familiar with having toengage another crop of ministers, but we must not let this familiarity mask the new context in which we’re statingour case.

We must listen to the public and engage with its criticisms and concerns. This will mean shifting our advocacy tobe more data-led, more consistent and more responsive to our audiences.

Amid choppy political seas, the R&D community needs to chart its own course. We must build our own non-partisan vision that answers that fundamental question—what’s the point? For most readers here, an answer willjump to mind, but we must be led by what matters to those we’re trying to reach, not what convinces us.

If we can’t articulate a compelling case to the public then funding will be redirected to other worthy causes and thismoment of opportunity for R&D will be gone. Perhaps for a generation.

This article first appeared in Research Fortnight on October 19th 2022