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Tough times put public support for R&D at risk

07 Mar 2023

Ben Bleasdale

Polling shows the challenges facing research advocates—and how they could respond, writes Ben Bleasdale

This article was originally published in Research Fortnight

As the cost of living crisis continues, the public’s enthusiasm for R&D is at risk. That’s the message of a landmark study published on 28 February by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, as part of our Discovery Decade project.

For R&D to attract sustained support and maximise its benefits to society, the public must be engaged as core stakeholders. Over the past year, Case has worked with the consultancy Public First to poll 18,000 people on their views on R&D’s role in society and cost to the public purse, as well as hosting 14 focus groups across the UK. The resulting open-access dataset aims to help advocates understand how to focus their efforts and cut through with different audiences.

The good news is that 70 per cent of people say government investment in R&D is important, 73 per cent say the UK needs to be better at science and innovation, and over half want politicians to give science and innovation more attention. Conservative and Labour voters hold these views equally.

But that support is at risk. In December 2022, for example, I heard a 63-year-old woman attending a focus group in Mansfield say that “it’s almost a luxury to fund R&D at this moment”, and that the government should sort out other areas before spending money on “possible, probable, maybes and maybe nots”.

Competing priorities

Similarly, our data show that many people see R&D as important but not urgent. A third of people supported a hypothetical proposal to halve the public R&D budget, rising to a majority when the cut was framed around alternative, pressing priorities such as lowering energy bills.

People in focus groups spoke about innovation making life more expensive. “Advances in technology often shove up the price,” said a 26-year-old man.

One problem is terminology. Initially, just over half of people polled didn’t know either the term ‘R&D’ or its meaning. For many in our focus groups, it means consumer tech, large businesses and medical treatments, leaving large parts of the R&D system unseen. Charities’ and universities’ contributions rarely came up without prompting, and few considered R&D beyond science and technology.

Efforts to give R&D a clearer brand identity are improving, but have a long way to go. Only 12 per cent knew of the government’s ‘science superpower’ tagline and what it meant. Promisingly, the more concrete messaging used by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology—delivering “stronger growth, better jobs and bold new discoveries”—appears to capture imaginations more readily.

There are also worrying signs that R&D is failing to connect with younger audiences. Age was one of the strongest predictors of attitudes: those over 65 were among the most supportive, while younger groups were less likely to feel that R&D benefited them and more likely to view investment as being currently unaffordable.

Tailored messages

The core premise of the Discovery Decade project is that R&D advocates must not treat the public as a single amorphous group, and instead build personal connections. Our data show that people see R&D’s potential for solving society’s problems, but this link needs strengthening.

Likewise, some arguments fall flat. Few worry about the UK “falling behind” in R&D investment compared with other nations—one focus group described this argument as “blackmail”.

Tailored arguments offer scope to talk more about where R&D happens. About two-thirds of people said they didn’t know much about what was happening in their area, and a similar proportion said they would like to know more. Tapping into local roots might also help make the most of trusted local champions for R&D and better reflect the variety of people in the sector.

Because R&D is useful for almost everything, it risks feeling useful for nothing in particular. This dataset gives a chance to rethink how to align advocacy with people’s concerns, hopes and attitudes.

The message should be one of honest, achievable optimism. There is huge support for altruistic motives for investing. As a 54-year-old IT manager in our Blackpool focus group put it, the first question asked of any project should be: “Will this contribute to making the world a better place for the next generation?”

Our data show that people may be emotionally engaged with R&D when it feels relevant to their lives and passions. Advocacy should begin by understanding those lives and passions.

Ben Bleasdale is director of the Discovery Decade project at the Campaign for Science and Engineering