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New Public Attitudes to R&D Polling

27 Jun 2024

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

New polling from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has found that the UK public want to see medical and environmental research breakthroughs but expect that these will be first achieved outside the UK.

Nationally representative polling of 4,100 UK adults, carried out by Public First in June 2024, asked the public for their views on questions, including:

  • Future scientific breakthroughs, where these were likely to occur and which the public would most like to see.
  • Appetite for long-term political thinking and solutions.
  • Whether the Conservative or Labour leader would be better at some R&D-related tasks, such as explaining quantum mechanics, or assembling flat pack furniture.

This work forms part of CaSE’s wider Discovery Decade project which is seeking to make R&D matter to more people, and is supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust.


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. In this latest survey, we sought to explore the framing of forward-looking or ‘blue skies’ research areas, by showing respondents a range of hypothetical future technologies or research breakthroughs in areas including robotics, neurological interfacing, engineering weather, digital technology, computing/AI efficiency, transformative AI, monitoring climate and programmable plants.

When asked which of a list of potential scientific breakthroughs they would most like to see happen, respondents chose developments in medical technology, agriculture and climate change tools.

However, a majority expect that the UK won’t be the first to achieve any of the example scientific breakthroughs. The medical advancements listed (‘Develop technology that can cure paralysis’ and ‘Develop a “pace-maker for the brain” to treat brain disorders’) were seen as being most likely to be achieved in the UK, each by 21% of the public – but a larger proportion felt they would occur first in the US.

Long-term thinking and solutions

CaSE’s new polling finds that around half of the UK public think research funding should be a high priority for political parties, and more than 80% think politicians should embrace long-term thinking.

Also, almost half (48%) said that political parties should discuss supporting R&D in the UK more or much more, and this view does not seem to be significantly affected by voting intention.

This research demonstrates that the public want to see politicians use R&D as a tool to solve big problems, and highlights an opportunity for the next Government to invest in long-term R&D solutions that will demonstrate the UK is among world leaders in research.

Sunak and Starmer head-to-head

Asked about which leader would be better at a range of R&D-related activities, the public thought that Labour leader Keir Starmer was more able to analyse the meaning of a poem (25%, vs 14% for Sunak) or teach someone about a complicated issue (26% vs 18%). While Conservative leader Rishi Sunak was seen as better able to solve a complicated maths problem (31% vs 18%) or learn a new language (27% vs 17%).

On the question about assembling flat pack furniture, Starmer was the clear winner, with 33% of people thinking he’d be better able to do it than Sunak, compared with 10% believing the opposite.

Commenting on the new polling:

“CaSE’s latest research demonstrates that the public want to see politicians using R&D as a tool to solve big problems, and there’s a huge opportunity for the next Government to invest in long-term R&D solutions.

“The public lack confidence in the UK as the home of the next big scientific breakthroughs. R&D advocates need to do more to communicate the UK’s track record of discoveries, and the huge potential for the next world-changing invention to emerge here.

“We hope to see increasing representation of science and engineering skills in Westminster, but for now I’m going to stick to assembling my own flatpack furniture.”

Dr Ben Bleasdale
Director of CaSE’s Discovery Decade project

“At CaSE we strongly believe in the importance of understanding what the public think and feel about R&D. If we as a sector are going to advocate effectively for research policy that aligns with our ambitions, we must respond to the public’s expectations as well.

“The General Election is a great opportunity to make the case for R&D to a new cohort of MPs, a case that will have more impact if we can demonstrate to policymakers the support and desire their constituents have for it.”

Dr Alicia Greated
Executive Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)

“The public recognises the important role R&D plays in solving key issues facing the NHS, the climate and British economy. Our research shows there is a popular case to be made by political leaders for the UK’s research sector, through medical and climate technology, or through talking about the role of the sector in economic growth.

“Many in the UK are looking for politicians to present more long-term solutions to problems, and R&D is a key part of this. The challenge is getting the public to believe that the UK could and will be the home of these solutions.”

Seb Wride
Head of Opinion Research, Public First

Notes to editors

Additional detail on attitudes to breakthroughs

From a list of potential breakthroughs, respondents ranked medical breakthroughs, agricultural engineering and climate technology as the examples they most wanted to see occur.

  • Breakthroughs in productive and climate-change resistant crops, and globally-accessible high-speed internet were seen as the most personally beneficial. From a list of potential breakthroughs, 59% of respondents say they would personally benefit a great deal or to some degree: “Develop crops that are so productive they can feed the world”, “Develop climate-change resistant crops” and “Develop high-speed internet which can be accessed anywhere in the world”.
  • The fact that the highest ranked 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
  • Many felt outcomes could be achieved quickly, with at least a fifth expecting each could be achieved within five years, and a majority saying within 20 years; with digital technological breakthroughs being seen as quickest to achieve

When shown a mix of potential scientific breakthroughs in areas from robotics to climate sciences, a majority expected that all would be first achieved by a country other than the UK

  • Breakthroughs in AI, computing efficiency, and robotics were seen as most likely to happen first in China, and breakthroughs in climate and weather monitoring and engineering in the US

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

This analysis shows that there are relative advantages to a range of different breakthroughs. We find some technologies which are seen to have clear personal benefits, feel imminently achievable, but are lower priority (high speed internet), and some which do not have personal benefits, feel less achievable but are high priority (medical technology). One consistent finding though is that, while the UK does have strengths, it lags behind the US and China on the majority of major breakthroughs.

About CaSE

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) is a charity that works to put science and engineering at the heart of the UK’s future. The UK’s leading advocacy group for science and engineering, our membership spans 110 scientific organisations, including businesses, universities, learned societies and charities, as well as individual scientists and engineers. Collectively our members employ over 336,000 people in the UK, and our industry and charity members invest around £32.2bn a year globally in R&D.

We collaborate with our members, partners and the public to lend our clear, expert voice to decisions about science and engineering. We specialise in developing non-partisan, responsive solutions that help research and innovation to thrive in ways that improve people’s lives and livelihoods.

Charity number: 1147492. Company number: 7807252.

This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust [222853/Z/21/]