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CaSE Public Attitudes to R&D and the General Election 2024

The next General Election is a crucial time for R&D advocates. To support them to make an effective case for R&D to both political and public audiences, CaSE is conducting a series of polls to explore attitudes to R&D and topics relevant to the election, such as economic growth and how people would like their MP to act on issues related to R&D and their local area. 

This section uses quantitative data from polling in March/April 2024, and will be updated with quantitative and qualitative results throughout 2024. 

Guide to interpreting this data

Introduction

Our first poll in the series of three in 2024 was a nationally representative poll of 2,011 UK adults carried out in March/April 2024. 

Two-thirds (66%) of respondents selected the cost of living as one of the three most important issues currently facing the country, followed by the quality of the NHS (51%) and the state of the economy (39%).  

These results broadly align with our previous polling, with the same top three issues. When compared to our July 2022 polling, we see a slight decrease in the number of respondents selecting cost of living (74% of 2,011) and the state of the economy (42%) and a slight increase in those selecting the NHS (37%). 

While cost of living is overall viewed as the most important issue, its importance wanes among older respondents over the age of 55, who are more concerned by the quality of the NHS and levels of immigration than younger respondents.  

We also explored attitudes to short and long-term political thinking, with the majority of respondents (60%) saying that the UK needs to take a long-term approach to political decision making, as many of the challenges we face will take a long time to resolve. This sentiment spans the political spectrum, irrespective of respondents’ voting intention.

Responses to a separate question reinforce this strong support for long-termism, with some 83% agreeing with the statement “Politicians should embrace long-term thinking and solutions”.

At a later point in the poll, after R&D had been explained, we asked respondents to describe in their own words the most exciting piece of R&D they had heard about. As with our wider research into public attitudes to R&D, we found that healthcare related research was front of mind. Of these, we saw many mentions of cancer, Covid and Alzheimer’s. We also saw a large number of responses directly or indirectly referencing artificial intelligence – although not always in a positive way, as some responses expressed concerns – and other technologies, along with the environment and energy.

Attitudes to R&D and economic growth

Key takeaways

  • The public feel confident in their understanding of commonly used phrases related to economic growth
  • The public naturally link economic growth to R&D investment and vice versa, and report a clear understanding of how R&D investment can lead to growth
  • When compared with more tangible potential outcomes of R&D investment, the phrase ‘grow the economy’ performed very well
  • Another strong argument for R&D investment was job creation, which performed similarly well to growing the economy in the context of an election campaign

Our March/April 2024 polling explored attitudes to economic growth, beginning with a question to assess respondents’ familiarity with terms that are commonly used in these discussions. Respondents reported a fairly strong grasp of the meaning of most of the phrases we tested relating to economics and growth.

More than 50% of 2,011 respondents said they could explain the meaning of ‘Economic growth’, ‘Deficit’, ‘Return on investment’, ‘Economic productivity’ and ‘GDP’. Of these phrases, economic growth performed best, with 97% of respondents saying they have heard the term, and 76% said they could explain it.

To understand the public’s overall perception of economic growth ahead of any questions about how this relates to R&D, we first explored respondents’ associations with the economy growing or not growing.

 When asked about the potential personal benefits of economic growth in the UK, the public mainly connected this to improvements in their standard of living (56% of 2,011 respondents), improvements to public services like transport, education and the NHS (45%) or making it easier to afford the essentials like food (43%). Just 4% said economic growth would not benefit them. This was fairly consistent across different demographics.

Reflecting this, when asked to consider the consequences of the economy not growing, most people connected this to a worsening of standards of living (71%) and a negative impact on jobs and businesses. Some 66% (of 2,011 respondents) expected shops and small businesses would close, 65% expected unemployment would increase.

Prior to any mention of R&D in the poll, we presented respondents with a list of potential actions that could encourage economic growth. Respondents were most likely to choose ‘reducing the costs of basic household needs, such as energy and food’ as a driver of economic growth (40%). Among the most popular options selected, there was a strong emphasis on actions that would have a personal impact and ones that would support business activity or skills development.

Various actions referring directly or indirectly to investing in R&D were seen as actions that would increase economic growth. This included 31% of respondents saying that ‘putting money into research and development’ would lead to more economic growth, putting it into the top 10 actions chosen.

Notably, other more specific actions that reflect investing in R&D – without referring to R&D explicitly – performed slightly better. These included strengthening the manufacturing sector (38%), promoting entrepreneurship and support for small businesses (37%) and putting money into businesses which are doing new or innovative things (33%).

This trend was particularly apparent among older respondents. For example, more respondents over the age of 65 gave strengthening the manufacturing sector (54%) and putting money into research and development (47%) as actions that would lead to economic growth than the youngest age group (24% and 28% of 18-24s, respectively). Younger respondents did generally connect actions relating to R&D to economic growth but were more likely to choose actions that may be more relevant to their own lives, such as more affordable housing (39%).

Respondents were then asked whether, to grow the economy it would be better to invest in R&D or to carry out one of a number of other typical near-term policy interventions, such as minimum wage increases or building hospitals. The majority of respondents (ranging from 50%-64%) thought investing in R&D was a better strategy, irrespective of the alternative action given.

This suggests that R&D is understood to be an effective strategy to grow the economy. This observation is reinforced by the finding that 65% of respondents felt it was clear how investing in R&D would grow the economy, compared with 23% who said it was not clear.

To test if the connection between R&D and economic growth existed in the opposite direction, respondents were asked what they thought might be potential benefits of the Government investing more money in R&D.

The notion that investing more in R&D would grow the UK economy was the joint most chosen benefit, alongside the idea it would make the UK better prepared for the future (each selected by 49% of respondents). Growing the economy was chosen by more people as a benefit of R&D investment than other commonly cited benefits, such as developing new life-saving medicines and treatments (42%) and helping solve long-term problems such as climate change (34%).

We saw comparable responses to a similar question in our May 2022 polling, although at that time the most-selected reason (by 51%) was that R&D investment would develop new life-saving medicines, and 49% that it would get the UK economy growing.

We then asked respondents whether they thought that ‘grow the economy’ or a more tangibly phrased reason was a more convincing argument for increasing investment into R&D. For each tangible phrase given, such as putting more money in people’s pockets in the long run or creating jobs that people want, the majority of respondents thought growing the economy was a more convincing argument than the alternative.

However, when we split the sample and tested different messages, we find that both growing the economy and creating jobs performed equally well. We later asked respondents to rate the strength of each of a set of arguments for R&D investment. ‘We should invest more into R&D as it will grow the economy’ performed best, with 84% of respondents saying it made a somewhat or very strong case. This was followed by an argument that it would create jobs that people want, which was seen as strong by 79%.

Respondents were asked a similar pairing of questions, but with the framing that the arguments were being made in the run up to the next General Election. Again, growth and job creation performed best (81% and 84% respectively). When asked to choose which of the arguments would make the best case in the context of the election, economic growth slightly surpassed job creation as the best argument for R&D investment (chosen by 22% and 19%, respectively). This direct comparison makes growth seem like the clear winner, but this result doesn’t translate into a clear stand-alone differences in the strengths of these two arguments for investing in R&D, in the context of General Election messaging. Notably, the negative framing that ‘businesses leave the UK because of a lack of R&D investment’ was selected by just 8%.

When provided with a range of reasons to invest in R&D and asked how important they were, respondents were more likely to choose national-level reasons. For instance, providing 250,000 new jobs across the UK and growing the UK economy were the most popular reasons to invest in R&D (33% and 32% said this was one of the most important reasons, respectively) from the options provided.

Fewer respondents felt that smaller-scale arguments were the most important reason. For instance, arguments to provide 50 jobs in a nearby town or grow the local economy were less likely to be chosen as the most important reason to invest in R&D (17% each), but the majority still felt these were important reasons to invest in R&D.  

Attitudes to R&D and jobs

Key takeways

  • When asked in broad terms about what types of jobs the Government should prioritise, respondents chose jobs in areas of high unemployment, for young people at the start of their careers and that provide a long-lasting stable career
  • R&D investment is seen to create jobs that make the UK competitive on the world stage, are for young people at the start of their careers and provide long-lasting stable careers
  • When arguing for investing in R&D, campaigns would benefit from focusing on the creation of long-lasting, stable job opportunities for people at the start of their careers

Early in our March/April 2024 poll, prior to any discussion of R&D, respondents were asked about the types of jobs the UK Government should be working hardest to create in the UK. The top three types of jobs that the public felt should be prioritised were: jobs in areas of high unemployment (50% of 2,011 respondents), jobs for young people at the start of their careers (49%), and jobs that provide a long-lasting stable career (48%). The jobs that were seen as the lowest priority were jobs for people with university degrees (16%).

Older respondents are more likely to favour the creation of jobs in areas of high unemployment (selected by 66% of those aged over 65 compared with 41% of 18-24s); jobs that make the UK more competitive on the global stage (59% compared with 23%) and jobs outside of London and the South East (54% compared with 19%).

We found some overlap between the jobs respondents wanted the Government to prioritise and the types of jobs they thought investing in R&D would create.

When asked what types of jobs would be created by greater R&D investment, the most common response was jobs that make the UK more competitive on the global stage (48% of 2,011 respondents); jobs for young people at the start of their careers (45%); jobs that provide a long-lasting stable career (45%); and jobs that benefit society more broadly (44%).

However, just 28% felt R&D investment would create jobs in areas with high unemployment and only 25% felt the jobs would be open to people who find it difficult to find employment.

When asked what advantages they felt R&D jobs would have over other jobs, the most common response was better pay (43%) and good progression opportunities (40%), but few saw R&D jobs as being more accessible (18%).

Another question that asked respondents to rank potential qualities of R&D jobs on a variety of scales reinforced the finding that people expect R&D jobs to be relatively well paid and have good progression opportunities. This ranking exercise also showed that respondents tended to view R&D jobs as being elsewhere in the country (45%), rather than in their local area (26%).

The perception that jobs created by R&D investment would be elsewhere in the UK was stronger in the North East, Northern Ireland and Wales, although samples are small in these regions. Respondents in London had the highest level of expectation that R&D jobs would be local. The expectation that jobs would be in their local area was considerably higher among younger people.

When asked whether respondents would personally be interested in a job in R&D, the majority described themselves as very or somewhat interested (62%). In total, just 3% said they already worked in R&D, and 17% said they would not be interested at all.

Overall, these results are similar to the results from our October 2023 poll, where 66% of 1,094 respondents said they would be very or somewhat interested, and 15% not interested at all.

A majority (67%) said they would like there to be new R&D jobs in their area. Younger people are more likely than older people to want R&D jobs in the UK but not their area (28% for 18-24s and 10% for over 65), but a majority of those aged 18-24 still say they would like the new R&D jobs to be in their area.

Attitudes to local action on R&D

Key takeaways

  • Constituents strongly support their MP taking action to support local and national R&D
  • Actions that gain the most support are their MP campaigning for more local clinical trials and the creation of new R&D jobs in the area
  • Attracting new local R&D facilities is widely supported, regardless of whether these are led by businesses, charities or the NHS
  • If an organisation is looking for a location to set up a research centre, most people would like their MP to actively campaign for it to be in their constituency

In our March/April 2024 poll, we asked respondents whether they would support a proposal to attract different organisations to set up a local research facility.

The majority were supportive of the proposal regardless of the organisation involved, with approximately 80% of respondents in favour, irrespective of whether the facility was being established by a medical research charity, NHS body, university, or business. There is broadly similar support across age groups for the proposals, although those aged 18-24 were more likely than older respondents to feel neutral on the issue when it was a business-led proposal.

The main advantages respondents saw for each type of organisation establishing local research facilities were boosting the local economy and providing jobs for local people. We saw a stronger connection between these top two advantages when businesses were involved in the proposal. Some 58% said this would boost the local economy, and 55% said it would provide jobs for local people when businesses were involved, whereas neither of these reasons were selected by more than 50% for the other types of organisation.

When framed around how they would want their local MP to respond to an organisation’s plan to set up a new research centre somewhere in the UK, a majority wanted their local MP to actively campaign for the centre to be set up in their constituency (60% of 2,011 respondents), compared to an very small number who would rather their MP actively campaigned against the plan (6%).

However, the level of support for such a campaign differed significantly by age group, with 76% of over 65s wanting their MP to campaign for a local research centre, compared with only 47% of those aged 18-24. This shift in support among younger respondents is due to higher proportions of 18-24s wanting their MP to not get involved (22%, compared with 8% for over 65s) or to actively campaign against it being set up in their constituency (14% among 18-24s compared with 3% for over 65s). Given that the majority of 18-24s would support an organisation of any type setting up a research facility in their local area, this result may reflect this group’s views about the role or priorities for their local MP, rather than the R&D facility itself. (It should be noted that the sample size for doctorate-holding respondents is too small to draw reliable conclusions.)

When asked whether they would support a variety of hypothetical R&D-related actions being taken by their MP, a majority of respondents supported them and support was consistent regardless of the respondents’ voting intentions. Actions that received the strongest support related to the MP campaigning for their nearest hospital to host more clinical trials and for the creation of more R&D jobs in the area (76% and 75%, respectively).

Respondents were also in favour of political and financial support for R&D. More than 60% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to vote for someone who will support R&D in the UK, regardless of voting intention in the upcoming election. In addition, more than 71% agreed that they would like to see more R&D investment and facilities in their local area. (Again, it should be noted that the sample size for doctorate-holding respondents is to small to draw reliable conclusions.)

Trust in R&D messengers

Key takeaways

  • Scientists are generally well trusted
  • Scientists are trusted because of their perceived knowledge of R&D and a belief they will be evidence-based

Our March/April 2024 poll asked respondents a series of questions about trust in a range of professions. NHS workers and scientists were the most trusted professions, in general terms, with 30% and 22% (respectively) saying they trust them completely. Journalists and politicians were the least trusted, with 20% and 38%, respectively, saying they do not trust them at all.

This was confirmed with a MaxDiff analysis, in which we display a random selection of different messengers to a respondent and ask them to identify the messenger they trust the most and the one they trust the least.

With this approach we find scientists, NHS workers and engineers were the most trusted, meaning they were often identified as the most trustworthy of the options shown. In fact, on average, 54% of the times that “scientists” was shown to a participant, it was selected as the most trustworthy messenger. On the flip side, politicians and journalists were not well trusted. Politicians were selected as the least trustworthy of the options 75% of the time, and the most trustworthy only 3%.

These trust patterns are strong across demographics. The MaxDiff shows that university lecturers and teachers are slightly more well trusted among those under the age of 45, and engineers and scientists slightly more among older respondents. Regardless, even for the youngest groups, scientists were the most trusted of the options.

When asked how trustworthy scientists would be when speaking about different aspects of R&D, respondents mostly felt they would be honest. A majority of people said they would mostly or completely trust scientists to be honest about how helpful R&D is to the public (69%); to honestly explain the results of R&D (68%); and to be honest about how much money the Government should be investing in R&D (59%). This supports results from our previous polls, which found that just over half of people trusted each of researchers, research charities and universities to be honest about how much the Government should invest in R&D.

Scientists’ honesty when talking about R&D investment was explored further in a subsequent question. When asked why they might trust those working in R&D to talk about R&D investment, the most commonly chosen reasons were that those working in R&D personally know the topic well (55%) and that they would take into account all the evidence (45%).

This suggests that the public sees a familiarity to the subject area not as a source of bias but rather as a benefit when communicating about R&D investment, perhaps in part due to the view that scientists will take an evidence-based and transparent approach. This again supports findings from our previous polls; for instance in our May 2022 polling there was stronger agreement with the statement “Scientists know better than others what is needed in science so it makes sense for them to talk about it”, than “It is self-interested for scientists to talk about more funding for research”.

Attitudes to R&D investment and topics

Key takeaway

  • Investment in R&D for healthcare is a clear priority for the public

Our March/April 2024 polling included a set of questions on the perceived benefits of Government investment in R&D and which areas respondents would like to see investment in.

Investment in R&D for healthcare is a clear priority for the public, with more than three quarters (78% of 2,011) wanting to see investment in this area. This is followed by the environment (45%) and education (36%). At the other end of the scale was arts and culture research, selected by just 7%.

However, after healthcare – which is the most popular across all age groups – priorities differ between age groups. Younger people were more likely than older people to prioritise investing in R&D for education (55% among 18-24s; 23% among over 65s), while older people prioritise R&D in the environment and security and defence. Security and defence was selected by 42% of over-65s, compared with 25% of 18-24s.

When asked why they had selected these topics, the reasons given differ between areas of R&D, although the idea that the area just needs more investment in general was the most-selected reason for five of the eight topics.

Although the reason that investment would benefit the economy and create more jobs resonated across many topics, respondents could most readily see the connection between investing in R&D in economics and benefits to the economy or creation of jobs. In contrast, the reason “I find this area more interesting” was in the bottom two for all topics apart from arts and culture, where it was the most-selected reason.

Interest in engaging with R&D

Key takeaway

  • Most people in the UK would like to hear more about local and national R&D

In our March/April 2024 poll, we asked a set of questions to understand people’s interest and opportunity to engage with R&D. Most people would like to hear more about R&D being carried out in the UK (73%) and locally (72%), irrespective of age.

However, when it comes to participating in R&D, although just over half (53%) expressed an interest, this is largely driven by younger age groups. Less than 30% of over 65s agreed or strongly agreed that they were interested, while nearly 70% of 25-34 year olds expressed an interest in taking part in R&D.

As discussed in a previous section, there is also interest among the public for a new scheme for local school children to visit research centres (72% would support their MP campaigning for this).