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Public Opinion during the 2024 General Election Campaign: Exploring public and political R&D priorities

Florence Young

Policy Officer

During this General Election campaign, CaSE is supporting the R&D sector’s advocacy by exploring attitudes to R&D and politically salient issues. Our latest poll explores the public’s perception of aspirational research goals, actions for the next Government to support R&D, and the impact of political messengers on statements about R&D.


27 June 2024

Today, CaSE has published data exploring public attitudes towards research & development (R&D), which includes a particular focus on priority areas for the public and political parties, political messages about R&D and public perception of aspirational or ‘blue skies’ research goals.

Our latest poll, which surveyed 4,100 UK adults in June 2024, asked a series of new questions alongside repeating questions from our previous polls, including our March/April 2024 survey, to understand how attitudes towards local R&D and R&D-centred campaigning can shift amid an election period. All our polling was carried out by research agency Public First.

CaSE will continue to track trends in public perceptions of R&D post-election, to add to our evidence base and support R&D advocates as they engage both political and public audiences.

R&D Priorities and Aspirations

The public would most like research to deliver medical and environmental breakthroughs – but people don’t expect the UK will be the first to achieve them.

When asked to select from a list of research areas which the Government could give more attention to, the most popular options chosen were medical, environmental, mental health and wellbeing, and data and cybersecurity research.

CaSE’s public opinion research has shown that the public feel a stronger connection with R&D when presented with specific areas of research and a clear explanation of why it is being carried out. We therefore sought to explore public attitudes towards R&D priorities through the lens of specific examples of aspirational or ‘blue skies’ research breakthroughs.

When asked which of a list of potential scientific breakthroughs they would most like to see happen, respondents again chose developments in medical technology, agriculture and climate change tools. However, our analysis shows that there are relative advantages to a range of different breakthroughs.

Some technologies are seen to have clear personal benefits, feel imminently achievable, but are lower priority overall – such as globally accessible high speed internet. However, others, which are not seen to have personal benefits, feel less achievable but are high priority – such as proposals focused on medical technology, for instance a “pace maker for the brain”. The fact that the priority issues do not align with those seen as having most personal benefit demonstrates that people’s prioritisation of breakthroughs depends on more, or different, factors than just personal benefit.

One consistent finding though is that, while the UK does have strengths, it lags behind other countries such as the US and China on the potential to deliver major breakthroughs, with a majority expecting that the UK won’t be the first to achieve any of the example scientific breakthroughs listed.

Public and Political Priorities

The public support politicians taking a long-term approach and almost half of respondents think that funding research generally should be a top or high priority for all political parties

As we see consistently across our polling, the cost of living, quality of the NHS and the state of the economy all remained important to the public in our June 2024 polling. We also see sustained support for long-termism, with 82% agreeing with the statement “Politicians should embrace long-term thinking and solutions”.

When asked which areas had got better or worse in the UK over the past 10 years, R&D ranks as the second most likely to have improved out of the areas presented. Some 26% felt that R&D had got somewhat or much better over the past 10 years.

While the top two issues that the public think all political parties should be prioritising were bringing down the cost of living (88% said this should be a top or high priority) and helping the NHS (88%), almost half (46%) think that funding research generally in the UK should be a top or high priority for all political parties.

Government Actions to Support R&D

A majority of the public believe that the R&D-related policy actions recommended by CaSE would create jobs and bring positive impacts to the economy

We also sought to explore public perceptions of policy actions for the next Government to take to support UK R&D, based on CaSE’s 2024 election manifesto asks. When asked about the economic impact of these four R&D-related policy actions, the two most-selected outcomes were that they would grow the economy and create more jobs, followed by encouraging foreign investment in the UK. This indicates that the public see a strong connection between the actions that CaSE is calling for to support R&D and the outcome of a growing economy.

We also asked who respondents would prefer the UK Government to listen to when deciding what actions to take. Some 36% said the UK Government should listen to people who work in R&D, coming third to public sector staff like nurses and doctors (selected by 52%) and economists (39%), and ranking higher than civil servants (18%).

Political Messaging

Statements on jobs and the economy said to be coming from Keir Starmer were more likely bolster his support, be perceived as achievable and as promises that would be kept, compared to when they are attributed to Rishi Sunak

Given we are in the middle of the election campaign, and our previous polling suggests that messengers can strongly influence public perceptions of R&D, we asked a series of questions exploring Labour leader Keir Starmer and Conservative leader Rishi Sunak as messengers about the economy and jobs, in relation to R&D.

When shown as statements from Starmer, messages about prioritising R&D investment to grow the economy or increase jobs were more likely bolster his support (46%-50% would be more supportive of Starmer) than if the same messages were shown as statements from Sunak (29%-37%, if Sunak expressed these priorities). This increased support for Starmer as a messenger is to be expected during an election campaign in which Labour holds a substantial lead. Respondents were considerably more supportive of these statements when they came from the leader of the party they intended to vote for.

We also examined how achievable or expected the statement was perceived to be, and whether they felt it was a promise the named party leader would keep. When statements were said to come from Starmer, respondents were more likely to feel they are achievable and that the promises would be kept than when they were attributed to Sunak.

Attitudinal Shifts Towards MP Actions

During the election campaign, respondents expressed slightly less support for potential actions on R&D by MPs than was seen prior to the election being called

Notably, we saw some downwards shifts in support within questions about potential actions MPs could take on R&D in our June 2024 polling, compared with the same questions asked in March/April 2024. For example, in this June poll, only 45% of respondents said they would like their local MP to actively campaign for a research centre to be set up in their constituency, whereas 60% (of the 2,011 respondents) supported this action in our March-April poll.

When this poll was in the field in June, the General Election had been called for 4 July 2024, and so the shift could be due to people being more aware of their local MP’s existing campaign priorities, or possibly a lack of certainty of who the MP would be. CaSE will continue to monitor these trends to assess whether this shift in attitude is specific to the election period or whether this represents a more sustained shift in support.

Overall Picture

Overall, our latest poll paints a promising picture for R&D, with broad support among the public for all political parties to discuss and fund R&D, and a perception among a quarter of the public that R&D in the UK has improved over the last 10 years.

As we have seen in previous polls, people express stronger support for R&D when framed around its economic benefits and relevance to important issues. This highlights the need for the sector to emphasise the crucial role for R&D as a tool to tackle priority issues for the public.

CaSE will continue to examine these trends in public perceptions of R&D, both throughout the General Election campaign and into the next Parliament. This will ensure that our R&D advocacy and policy development is grounded in what matters to the public.

Explore the data