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Benefits of R&D

What benefits flow from doing R&D, and who receives those benefits?

To help understand the social value that the public place on R&D, we asked people what benefits they thought R&D produced and who they think gains from those outputs.

This section uses quantitative data from our May 2022, July 2022. February 2023 and October 2023 polling, along with qualitative data from our focus groups.

Guide to interpreting this data

Perceived benefits of R&D

Key takeaways

  • In focus groups, people gravitate towards consumer tech as a primary example of R&D’s benefits, but are divided on the net benefit these products bring to their lives
  • R&D’s spillover benefits to the economy, job creation or education were rarely mentioned unprompted. They were well-received when highlighted, but people also felt these types of benefits were less important than the main aim of the research
  • However, those who support R&D investment are motivated by the idea that it can create a better world for future generations, and people see R&D as a route towards improved healthcare, a stronger economy, a safer society and being better prepared for the future

As described in the Knowledge of R&D section, participants in our focus groups tended to focus on the development of consumer tech when asked for examples of R&D.

In our May 2022 poll, we asked people which inventions from a list had had a positive impact on their lives over the last 25 years. Over three-quarters of people said that the internet had a positive impact, followed by smartphones (67%) and laptops (52%). However, we saw age-related trends in the responses. While around half of respondents overall selected the coronavirus vaccine, the figure was 73% for the 65+ age group, and 38% for those aged 18-24. Similarly, 87% of 65+ respondents selected the internet, compared with 61% of 18-24 year olds.

In contrast, when asked about new developments, rather than those from the past, younger people were more likely to say they were excited by new products and technologies. In our February 2023 poll, 78% of 18-24 year olds agreed with this statement, compared with 56% of those aged over 65. Overall, 66% of people agreed that they were excited by new products and technologies, compared with 9% who disagreed.

However, the net benefit of R&D on everyday life proved divisive in several focus groups, with discussions about the relative benefits and drawbacks of consumer technology in particular. Aligning with this, our polling saw more than half of people agree that R&D “does not always lead to good outcomes”. This view was consistent across all demographic groups.

In our focus group discussions, participants rarely linked R&D investment to wider spillover benefits to the economy, job creation, or education. These types of benefits were generally well-received once they were highlighted by a facilitator, but participants generally felt these less tangible benefits were less important than the main aim of the research. Some people were sceptical about the longevity of jobs created indirectly by R&D investment, such as in construction, given the prevailing economic climate and previous closures of local industries.

In championing R&D, advocates across the R&D sector regularly talk about its benefits to society. We used our polling to test people’s reactions to the types of arguments which the R&D sector typically uses, to help guide the use of different rationales towards the most receptive audiences.

In our May 2022 poll, we asked respondents who said they felt it was “important for the Government to invest in R&D” why they thought this. The most-selected answers were the benefits it brings for future generations (68%), the role it plays in keeping people healthy (51%) and the role it plays in keeping the UK safe and secure (50%). When we separately asked all 2,037 respondents what benefits they thought would arise from the Government investing more money into R&D, the most-selected response related to “life-saving medicines and treatments”, followed by “getting the UK economy growing” and “being better prepared for the future”. The least popular response was that investing in R&D would “reduce the cost of products that I need” – and the perception that innovation actually raises everyday costs for people is discussed more in the section below.

In our July 2022 polling, we asked the 34% of people who said that they wanted increased R&D investment why they felt this way (the overall response to this question is discussed in the Investing in R&D section), with many responses referencing spillover benefits. R&D investment was seen as a reliable way to boost the economy in the UK and to create greater opportunities for both businesses and the public. R&D investment was described by one as “future-proofing the UK economy”. Other answers supported the idea of being better prepared for future crises, such as the pandemic.

We also asked respondents about the impact of new discoveries being made in Britain, and found net agreement that this could make the country richer (65% net agree); a better place to live (65% net agree); and safer (58% net agree).

In focus groups, benefits linked to improved healthcare and being prepared for the future came through very strongly, and participants would frequently single out the concept of improving the world for “the next generation” as a motivator for prioritising certain R&D projects over others.

We discuss the impact of timeframes in more detail on the Issues section, and reflect on how this can translate into effective communication in the Messages and Messaging section.

Our October 2023 poll – which sought to compare “Research & Development” and “Research & Innovation” (see Terminology) – explored attitudes towards research jobs and skills. The samples were split so that half of respondents (1,094 individuals) saw questions focused on R&D and the other half (956 individuals) saw questions focused on R&I. We found that 64% (of 1,094) said that R&D jobs were important, 60% said they were interesting and 32% said they were well-paid. Older people tended to see them in a more positive light than younger groups, with 41% of respondents aged 65+ describing R&D jobs as prestigious compared to 18% of respondents aged 18-24. Younger groups were more likely to describe R&D jobs as difficult (28% for 18-24s, 11% for 65+), competitive or short-lasting.  

When asked how important it is for schools to give children the skills they need for R&D jobs, 27% (of 1,094) said they were among the most important skills to learn, and 55% said they were important but that other skills were more important.  

Who benefits from R&D

Key takeaways

  • Many people feel like they don’t benefit from R&D, especially younger people and those in socioeconomic group DE
  • A majority of people feel that R&D benefits some more than others; of those only 24% think that “people on middle incomes” benefit and instead see wealthy people and big businesses as the major winners
  • Fears that innovation makes everyday life more expensive, and the benefits it generates are simply unaffordable to many, were expressed in focus groups

Throughout our research, there were indications that people don’t feel a direct benefit from R&D, or see the benefits of R&D as being spread unevenly across society.

In our May 2022 polling, only 39% of 2,037 respondents felt that R&D benefitted “people like them”. This left 61% of people either believing that R&D doesn’t benefit people like them, or feeling neutral or unsure about R&D’s impacts; this proportion peaked at 72% for those aged 35-44, compared with 43% for those aged 65+. We found that all groups aged under 44 were less likely to see the benefits of R&D, along with those on lower incomes and those in socioeconomic groups C2 and DE.

We explored the extent to which people felt that Government investment into R&D benefitted their lives in our February 2023 polling. More than a third (37%) of 4,005 respondents said they could think of very few or no ways that investment in R&D had improved their lives. Just 9% could think of many ways. Men, those in group AB and those with higher levels of formal education were more likely to be able to think of ways that R&D investment had improved their lives.

Similarly, in the same February 2023 poll, just 9% of people said that they benefitted a lot from the Government investing in R&D. In contrast, 36% said they do not benefit at all, or do not know how to answer. This rises to almost half of those with GCSEs as their highest level of formal educational attainment (49%).

However, questions framed around the long-term impact of R&D yielded a more positive reaction. In our July 2022 poll, more than half (57%) of 8,474 respondents agreed that R&D had improved their life. However, some of the trends remained, with agreement being notably lower among those in socioeconomic group DE (46%) compared with group AB (70%). Comparing across both formulations of this question, it is clear that benefits of R&D are felt, or perceived to fall, unevenly across society.

Our February 2023 polling mirrored these results, with 57% of 4,005 respondents agreeing that R&D had improved their lives, compared with 6% who disagreed. Again, we saw lower agreement among younger groups – 49% of 18-24s agreed compared to 61% of over 65s – and among those in socioeconomic group DE (46% agree) compared with AB (69% agree).

What is clear throughout our study is that the public do not see the benefits of R&D as being evenly distributed; more than half (59%) of people in our July 2022 poll felt that R&D benefitted some more than others. Notably, responses continued to show a trend based on socioeconomic group, and – as seen in our May 2022 polling – on age. We repeated this question (“Do you agree or disagree with the following?: Research and development in the UK benefits some people more than others”) in both our February 2023 polls and found very similar results, with 60% in each poll (one of 4,005 respondents and one of 4,053 respondents) agreeing.

Looking at the results from our largest sample size, the July 2022 poll, the sense that R&D benefits some more than others was generally consistent between groups. It tended to be higher for younger respondents (64% for 18-34 year olds) and those in socioeconomic group DE (61% agree, 6% disagree compared to 57% and 12% among socioeconomic group AB). There was limited variation between regions of the UK.

Of those who said that R&D benefits some more than others, people cited “big businesses”, “wealthy people” and “the national government” as the top beneficiaries. Almost twice as many people (44%) identified “wealthy people” as beneficiaries compared to “people on middle incomes” (24%).

We saw similar attitudes among respondents who wanted to see a decrease in R&D investment in the free text responses in our July 2022, with a common theme among this group being that the investment benefits the rich and not the poor. This view was more prevalent within the C2DE socioeconomic groups. Some felt that R&D only benefits the rich and as such only the rich should pay, especially when poorer members of society are struggling financially and do not support higher taxes.

Focus group participants expressed similar concerns, saying that the benefits of R&D wouldn’t be accessible to everyone due to new innovations being more expensive, with the costs of the R&D being passed on to the consumer. People pointed towards consumer products or technology such as mobile phones, where the latest model typically costs more than the last.

Opinions on global, regional and local level benefits

Key takeaways

  • Many people want their region to be home to lots of R&D activity, and believe this will generate local jobs, draw inward investment, and also benefit the UK as a whole. Notably, younger people are less likely to say that local R&D activity would generate local jobs or draw inward investment
  • As many people would support a new research lab being built in their local area as would support a new school or wind farm. This support spans different demographic groups, although it was higher among those in socioeconomic group AB and those with higher levels of formal education attainment
  • People are divided on where the benefits of R&D should be felt first. Many focus group participants viewed R&D as a collaborative endeavour to fix global problems, while other wanted to focus on tangible impacts that are closer to home, citing the local pride this generates and the personal benefits they could gain

To better understand the benefits people want to see from R&D, we explored how people valued R&D’s potential impacts at different distances – from locally, to nationally and globally.

To explore which local benefits people wanted to see from R&D, our July 2022 poll asked how important people felt it was for their region to carry out a lot of R&D. Some 79% of respondents in North East England, and around three-quarters of those in Northern Ireland and London (76% and 72%, respectively), said it was at least somewhat important for their region to carry out a lot of R&D.

Of these respondents, 71% were motivated by the local jobs that R&D could generate, followed by inwards investment in the area (64%) and benefits to the UK as a whole (53%). Notably, 18-24 year olds were less likely that those aged 65+ to say that R&D would generate new local jobs (60% vs 79%) or that it would bring investment to their area (47% vs 76%), but were equally likely to say it would open up local educational opportunities (56%).

In our October 2023 polling, two thirds (67%) of 1,094 respondents said they would like to see more R&D carried out in their local area. These proportions were similar among the 956 respondents who saw the same question posed for “Research & Innovation”. 

When framed around local jobs, we found that almost half (49%) were neutral on whether new jobs in R&D should be in their area or elsewhere, with 35% saying they would prefer new jobs in R&D to be in their area rather than other parts of the country. Most respondents (57%) felt neutrally about whether new jobs in their area were in R&D or other sectors, with older people more likely respond neutrally than other age groups.  

The biggest perceived benefits to having local R&D or R&I were more jobs in the area (57% for R&D), improvements to the local economy (50% for R&D) and having local people involved as participants (44% for R&D).  

As the physical footprint of R&D expands within the UK, it is also important to consider people’s openness to having R&D facilities in their areas, and what benefits they expect to see from such developments. In our February 2023 polling, we found that about as many people would support a new research lab being built in their local area as would support a new school or wind farm. This is more than would support a new train station, factory or shopping centre. There was also support for the research lab option across different demographic groups, although it was higher among those in socioeconomic group AB and those with higher levels of formal education attainment.

When asked why, 62% of those who supported a new research lab being built said it would benefit the local economy, 60% said it would bring more well-paid jobs to their area. More than half (57%) said they just supported more research being carried out in general, while 56% thought it would bring educational opportunities for young people in the area. 

The main points of opposition were the potential damage to the local environment (43%) and increased traffic (35%). The next most selected option was that it wouldn’t benefit the local economy (28%). Just 9% said that they thought the UK as a country already does enough research, and just 16% said they thought there were already enough research labs in the country.

In our October 2023 polling, we asked a similar question, but at an even more localised level, to test whether support changed when it was a more specific, local place. Some 70% (of 1,094) would support a proposal to build a new laboratory for carrying out R&D on their nearest high street, and 68% (of 956) would support the same proposal when framed around R&I. 

As discussed earlier in this section, focus group participants rarely instinctively thought about the spillover benefits that might be generated by increased R&D happening locally, but these results suggest that these could be well-received if more clearly highlighted.

When asked to prioritise R&D projects where the impact would occur either locally, nationally or globally, focus group participants were divided. Many strongly supported R&D to tackle global issues, often tied to the idea that society needs to leave the world a better place for the next generation.

However, some participants wanted to see impacts from R&D being felt closer to home, for a range of reasons. Some wanted to see a clearer benefit to people like themselves, others felt a sense of pride in a local impact, and several expressed strong personal connections to a local R&D project.

The prioritisation of local benefits tended to increase when the question was framed around UK taxpayer money being spent on R&D – although some expressed support for taxpayer money being used to tackle global issues, particularly among those who were passionate about using R&D to protect the environment. Many also recognised that the benefits of R&D would apply beyond just the area where the work was carried out, and saw these ‘spillover’ benefits as a way to rationalise choosing R&D projects that were initially focused closer to home.

Jump to a different section

Knowledge of R&D
Benefits of R&D
Investing in R&D
Opportunities to Engage
Messages and Messaging
Visual Concepts
Segmenting our Audiences