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New CaSE polling shows public support for R&D is at risk

28 Feb 2023

R&D is at risk of being labelled a “luxury” given the pressures on public finances. New polling from CaSE shows that over a third of people can think of very few or no ways that investment in R&D improves their lives, this backs up earlier parts of the study from 2022 where polling indicated that only 21% of people felt that R&D could reduce the cost of the products they need. Advocates must make the benefits of R&D more visible, with polling data suggesting that tangible, local messages about R&D can change peoples’ minds.

Although the public are broadly supportive of R&D, that support is fragile. Almost half (46%) of people would only choose to invest more in R&D when the economy is in better shape. Similarly, our major poll in 2022 showed that 55% of people felt that “Other issues are more pressing at the moment, with people struggling to pay their bills and the economy in a bad way. Funding for luxuries like R&D can wait for another day, when money is less tight” was a strong argument.

People polled were presented with a hypothetical Government proposal to immediately halve the R&D budget. A third (34%) of respondents said they would support this proposal. When this cut was framed as freeing up money for hiring nurses or lowering energy bills, an outright majority (52%) supported halving the R&D budget. This was echoed in focus groups:

If there wasn’t as much of a crisis today – with the gas, electric, diesel, and the NHS – I could be more content with investing in more research for the future. Research helps and is needed, but right now we need to focus on what is happening here and now.

Scientist, woman, 28, Manchester

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, woman, 63, Mansfield

I’ve never really thought about it much, but research is very important. For short and long term. If we don’t do research, then we’re not going to get cures or find the solution to problems. But I think at the moment, the short term is more important than the long term.

Lettings manager, woman, 56, Leeds

Advocates for R&D have an opportunity to remedy this issue by making the benefits of R&D more visible. Tangible, local messages about R&D can change peoples’ minds. Our polling found 72% of respondents in London, 79% in North East England, and just over three-quarters of people (76%) in Northern Ireland said it was at least somewhat important for their region to carry out a lot of R&D. Of these respondents, 71% said they were motivated by the local jobs that R&D could generate, followed by investment it would bring to their area (64%) and benefits to the UK as a whole (53%). This is another theme we saw echoed in focus groups:

We have to see something at the end of the road, otherwise, it’s just smoke and mirrors. If you can tie that R&D to some tangible benefit, such as the NHS, that will give some long lasting benefit and make the service better.

Systems manager, man, 44, Mansfield

These insights are drawn from nationally-representative polls covering a total of 18,000 people, and 14 focus groups across the UK. The work commissioned by CaSE and funded by Wellcome, was carried out by Public First. The project’s focus, developed from widespread consultation with the R&D sector, has been to transform public attitudes and build a broad and lasting base of support for research funding. The grant from Wellcome has enabled CaSE to gather this evidence, and begin to hone the messages and techniques needed to build widespread public support for R&D investment. All of the data will be made available via CaSE’s new website so that the sector can best utilise the insights to guide their future public engagement and advocacy work.

Commenting on the work:

Kim Shillinglaw, Chair of the Discovery Decade project, CaSE:

“The UK can never hope to become an R&D-intensive nation if the public aren’t part of that journey. This new data is the start of encouraging the sector to work together on building a science positive, innovation positive society, and grow the public identity of R&D to a place where it feels non-negotiable as a priority.”

Prof Sarah Main, Executive Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE):

“CaSE believes the public are vital stakeholders in UK R&D. Listening to and understanding public opinion will help us build sustained support for research investment and to deliver the greatest widespread public benefit from R&D. I am delighted that CaSE’s Discovery Decade project is now able to contribute valuable insights that CaSE and the sector can use to complement our existing advocacy.

“These findings challenge us to build a more far-reaching and compelling narrative for R&D, and they give us some hints as to how we might go about it. I see huge potential in these findings and the tools that have generated them. CaSE intends to incorporate public insights into its advocacy activity in a sustained way as a collective resource for the sector and we look forward to exploring ways of achieving that.” 

Dr Ben Bleasdale, Director of the Discovery Decade project, CaSE:

“This study has been almost a year in the making, and today’s landmark report offers the R&D sector an unparalleled view into how the public see our work and our cause, as advocates for R&D.

“We have carefully shaped each stage of our evidence gathering to collect practical insights that can actually help make decisions for those delivering campaigns, messages and advocacy.

“Today’s data is just the first step, and we want to work closely with people across the R&D sector to translate these findings into real-world campaigns. Anyone who’s interested should get in touch.”

Rachel Wolf, Founding Partner, Public First:

“The R&D sector starts from an enviable position – the public support funding it. But without tangible detail, that support won’t survive tough times and other priorities. There will need to be a lot of targeted work to maintain and increase public interest through the next decade.

“We’ve polled 18,000 people over the last year and we are confident that this dataset has practical findings that can make a big difference to public perceptions.”

Dr Beth Thompson, Director of Strategy, Wellcome Trust:

“This Discovery Decade dataset is a chance to see our work as a sector through the eyes of our audience. However we might feel about R&D personally, what matters is how others feel about it – and this data sets that out in hard numbers.

“Wellcome supported this work as an experiment for the whole sector, to give us the tools and insights needed to take our advocacy to the next level. It will be a long journey that will need willingness from people across our sector, but I’m excited to see this first step today.”