Cementing political and public backing means facing hard truths, say CaSE's Daniel Rathbone and the Wellcome Trust's Ben Bleasdale.

Across British politics, R&D’s stock is high. This was true before scientific advisors became a daily staple of televised press briefings, back when an ‘R number’ meant little to most. While the R&D sector is, like others, grappling with the impacts of COVID-19, its political prominence has perhaps never been greater.

Even as financial markets have stumbled, R&D budgets have taken meaningful strides upwards. Research and innovation are on display in speeches, Budgets and manifestos – backed by promises to double investment over the coming years. Last week’s R&D Roadmap, a stock-take of the sector’s strengths and shortcomings, shows just how far Government have bought into an R&D-powered future. So, while the sector faces short-term challenges, its long-term prospects indicate a transformative decade ahead.

This is an exciting time for those of us involved in R&D advocacy, who believe that R&D can and does improve the quality of life for communities across the UK. Our combined efforts have secured the political prominence R&D now enjoys, but we must now ask whether that prominence will endure?

We have published a report that asks what the sector needs to do between now and 2030 to keep R&D on that priority list. The report forms part of the wider R&D Decade partnership between Wellcome and CaSE. Alongside others, we’ve long advocated for greater investment in R&D, and this new report asks how the sector can ensure this target doesn’t fall victim to changing economic or political circumstances, as with those before it. 

For objectivity, we commissioned policy specialists Public First to open up a conversation with advocates across the sector. Over the past six months, they’ve interviewed seasoned campaigners within and outside the sector. They’ve profiled 25 campaigns to understand the tactics that propelled them to success, and they’ve used focus groups and opinion polls to explore the public’s perceptions of campaigning and R&D.

Building on this accumulated evidence, the report sets out four models of how the sector might set out its stall. Designed to be illustrative, these models help us reflect on our assumptions as a community, considering how these have shaped our advocacy in the past, and how we might evolve them for the challenges of the future.

The four models contain familiar tactics, but expand and enhance these into powerful advocacy tools. This might see the sector adopting more emotive campaigning styles to build enduring public support for R&D investment, or tightly aligning R&D to the ambitions of decision-makers who are shopping for innovative ideas. It could mean mobilising a very public and vocal presence for R&D at important moments in the political cycle, or perhaps fostering a more unified voice across advocates within the sector.

The report also highlights a series of tensions that emerged during conversations with R&D advocates. These ask whether the sector is prepared to engage with more emotive lines of advocacy such as national pride, how to foster a unified narrative in such a diverse community, and why a sector present across the whole UK struggles to talk about ‘place’. While the list offers some hard truths for the sector, resolving these tensions could open new avenues of cooperation and advocacy. 

Drawing on evidence from behavioural psychology, marketing and campaigning tactics, the report explores the characteristics of effective campaign messengers, the role of tailored messaging, and the power of tangible stories. In a sector often perceived as an ivory tower, there are helpful lessons about connecting with a broader audience. As society at large asks how to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic, the report asks how our advocacy can best sell the opportunities that R&D investment brings in a way that resonates beyond Whitehall.

To sustain progress across the next decade, the R&D community will need to build an enduring, active base of support that can keep our sector politically relevant. We’ve benefited from a string of political champions across successive governments, but relying on this is a high-risk strategy. The last General Election saw many familiar faces depart and the role of Science Minister has been through five reshuffles since 2018 – we can’t expect our political champions to always be there when the times get tough.

In these conversations, we mustn’t lose sight of the sector’s successes – we are privileged to be able to talk about sustaining progress. But this isn’t the time to lose momentum. Instead we must craft the advocacy tools we’ll need in the years ahead and accept that the challenge in front of us is very different from the one we’ve just overcome.

This report is designed to inform a broader conversation, which Wellcome and CaSE will convene over the summer as we unpick the report’s implications. Public First’s work points to a gap in the market, and we want to work together to fill that space with an advocacy voice that can benefit the whole community. Only by working together can we ensure that R&D investment remains an attractive offer throughout the decade ahead.

Daniel Rathbone is Assistant Director at the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and Ben Bleasdale, Senior Policy & Advocacy Adviser at the Wellcome Trust

This article first appeared in Research Fortnight (£). Reproduced here with permission

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