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Investing in R&D

How do the public feel about taxpayer investment into R&D, and how would they react to it being cut or increased?

Building on existing data that explores public attitudes towards R&D as a concept, this data focuses specifically on attitudes towards investing public money into it.

We gauged awareness of current R&D investment and ambitions, attitudes towards changing the level of investment, and how willing people people were to changing their minds in this topic.

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

Awareness of taxpayer investment into R&D

Key takeaways

  • In focus group conversations, R&D is primarily viewed as being funded by businesses and public funding for R&D has a low profile
  • Where people do identify examples of publicly-funded R&D, they picture R&D studies that are tied very tightly to public services
  • Profit-driven R&D elicits a mixed response – some worry about profit as a motivator, but others feel it might accelerate impact or alleviate pressure on public finances
  • Overall, the majority of people are neutral about whether private-funding or public-funding for R&D yields better results
  • Where R&D is receiving public investment, many people wanted to see clearer evidence of the return on investment taxpayers were getting

The private sector – primarily large businesses – are viewed as the main funders of R&D in the UK, followed by the national government and then universities. In focus groups, it was very rare for participants to organically identify universities as organisations that fund or conduct R&D, and many participants said that R&D in the UK was predominantly commercially funded. Groups with more prior knowledge of what R&D is, were more likely to know that R&D was also supported by taxpayer investment, and these individuals tended to view that investment in a more positive light than average.

When discussing examples of Government-funded research, people spoke of studies to improve public services or major transportation projects, and there was a broad acknowledgement that public money was spent on health research, with the assumption this was carried out by the NHS. We discuss this in more detail in the Knowledge of R&D section.

Participants frequently described companies as being profit-motivated in their R&D goals, but many felt this incentivised companies to produce quicker results. Some participants also described the involvement of companies in R&D as “saving taxpayers money”.

In our July 2022 polling, most people (53%) felt that R&D was no better or worse when funded by private companies for profit versus by Government and charities not for profit, with the remaining responses leaning slightly towards the non-profit side. Conservative voters and younger age groups were some of the most likely to prefer private companies conducting the R&D, peaking among 18-24 year olds. However, across all demographic groups, the largest group chose the neutral position on this issue, and even among the younger and Conservative voting groups the proportion preferring private R&D investment was matched by the proportion preferring Government and charity investment.

In free text responses in our July 2022 poll – which allows people to write down their views in their own words – we saw similar themes when asked about whether R&D investment should be increased, maintained or decreased. The latter two groups were more likely to say that the private sector could “pick up the slack” or that R&D is better financed by the private sector and will benefit more people, while the first group were more likely to express distrust in the private sector, that it would be unreliable if profit driven.

Among focus group participants, attitudes towards private or public funding of R&D were similarly mixed. Some felt that taxpayers would save money if R&D was funded by private companies, while others worried about what the impact of profit-led motivations. Several participants wanted to see more direct benefits for taxpayers when R&D was Government-funded, and there was a broad appetite for greater clarity and accountability from researchers when public money was being spent. We discuss the types of messages that resonate with people in more detail in our Language and Messages section.

Attitudes to taxpayer investment into R&D

Key takeaways

  • A majority of the public support the idea of Government investment into R&D, though our data suggests that younger people and those in C2 and DE groups are more sceptical
  • Most people (56% of 4,005) want to see politicians pay more attention to science and innovation than they currently do, a view held broadly across different groups
  • However, people express concerns about investing public money into R&D rather than prioritising other pressing issues, such as the cost-of-living crisis or the NHS
  • R&D is at risk of being labelled a “luxury” in the current economic climate; more than half of people think this is a strong argument for delaying investment

A large majority of the public support Government investment into R&D. In our May 2022 poll, 70% of 2,037 respondents said it was at least somewhat important for the Government to invest in R&D, with the 65+ age group and those in the AB group more likely to support public investment.

In our July 2022 poll, 24% of people felt that “R&D should not be funded by taxpayers”, compared with 41% of 8,474 respondents who disagreed with that statement. However, with almost a third of people taking a neutral stance, there is a clear risk of net support swinging against the principle of taxpayer funding for R&D. We found similar results in our February 2023 polling, with 25% of 4,005 respondents agreeing with the statement “R&D should not be funded by taxpayers”.

Responses varied across demographic groups. There appears to be more support for taxpayer funding among men and those in group AB – these groups were more likely to disagree with the statement. Responses from younger age groups and C2 and DE groups indicated less support for taxpayer investment, with those groups being more likely to agree with the statement that R&D should not be funded by taxpayers.

We also note some slight regional differences on this question, with people in Northern Ireland and London being more likely to agree that R&D should not be funded by taxpayers, while those in Scotland were more likely to disagree with that statement.

Many focus group participants were concerned about prioritising R&D over other urgent priorities for public money. People spoke about the pressing need to tackle the rising cost of living, or support the struggling NHS, and they felt that it was reasonable for the nation to get its “house in order” first, before investing in R&D. R&D risks being labelled a “luxury” and in our May 2022 polling, 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 against R&D investment.

In our May 2022 polling, there was net agreement with the statement “We currently invest too much in R&D rather than solving issues that matter now”, with 34% agreeing and 30% disagreeing. Agreement was stronger among women, all age groups below 45 years old, and people in groups C2 and DE.

We explored the urgency of R&D investment, and the tensions between this and other pressing concerns, in our February 2023 polling. These results indicate that support for R&D investment is fragile, and that there is a particular risk to younger people’s support.

In one poll, of 4,053 respondents, we asked how important it is for the UK to be investing money in R&D at the moment. About a third (34%) said it was one of the most important things for the UK to be investing in. However, just over half (54%) said that it was important for the UK to invest in at some point, but other things were more important at the moment. We found that most responses were split between these two choices, rather than the other options – few people felt that R&D was not that or not at all important for the UK to invest in.

Younger age groups were more likely to say that other things were more important than R&D at the moment (60%) rather than saying that R&D was one of the most important things for investment (23%). This is compared to over 65s, who are more evenly divided between these two options (47% and 45%, respectively).

In the second poll, of 4,005 people, we asked about the immediacy of investment. A plurality (46%) would invest more in R&D only when the economy is in better shape. Just over a third (35%) of people felt we should invest more in R&D now, with those in the highest socioeconomic groups most likely to think this. Comparing age groups, 47% of those over 65 felt that we should invest more in R&D now, dropping to just 24% of the under 25s.

However, a separate question found that only 24% agreed that we cannot afford to invest in R&D at the moment. This rose to 34% among 18-24s, and under 35s in general tended to agree with this rather than disagree, in contrast to the 65+ group, where 55% disagree.

In our February 2023 poll, we asked whether people would like politicians to pay more attention to science and innovation – wording chosen to align with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent statements about the UK’s R&D aspirations (for more discussion of this, see the Messages and Messaging section). A majority of people (56% of 4,005) wanted to see politicians pay more attention to science and innovation than they currently do, while 20% said they were paying the topics the right amount of attention and 7% said they were paying too much attention. In general, the desire to see greater political attention focussed on science and innovation was broadly held, but was smaller among people with lower levels of formal education.

To explore broader support for Government action, in our October 2023 polling we asked about particular issues that are related to R&D. We found that a majority would support the Government taking action to make the UK the best place for a company to set up its research department (71% of 2,050); to make the UK the country with the best universities in the world (68%); to make the UK the global leader in new inventions and make the UK the first country to reach Net Zero (55%). 

Attitudes to political parties’ support for R&D

Key takeaways 

  • R&D in general does not appear to be politicised, even if some of the issues it feeds into are 
    The public generally believes that neither the Conservatives nor Labour prioritise R&D over the other party, but there are generally lower levels of trust for the Conservatives on a range of research related issues 
    The majority of respondents think both political parties will prioritise the NHS and the cost of living, with just over a third saying that each party sees R&D investment as a top or high priority  
    In focus groups, no participant felt a party’s support for R&D would make them more likely to vote for that party

Building on broad questions asked about the Government, as outlined throughout our polling, our October 2023 polling – in anticipation of a coming General Election – posed a set of questions about the two largest political parties in the UK. 

When asked which political party prioritises R&D, the largest proportion (32%) said they didn’t know, followed by 20% who said that they thought it was equally prioritised by both parties. The remaining respondents were split: 17% (of 1,094) said it was a greater priority for the Conservatives and 17% said it was a greater priority for Labour. 

Exploring trust in the political parties, we generally saw lower levels of trust in the Conservatives (which aligns with wider opinion polling at the time of the survey), particularly on helping those from poorer areas get to university or get jobs in research.  

However, on other R&D topics, the Conservatives were not too far behind Labour on creating new jobs in research, making the UK a world leader in research and making it desirable for businesses to set up research centres in the UK. Notably, 36% don’t trust either party on AI, which is the highest proportion across all the issues tested. 

When asked what they think the parties’ priorities are, helping the NHS and bringing down the cost of living are seen as both parties’ top priorities. Funding research in the UK is seen as a top or high priority for Labour by 39% (of 2,050 respondents), and for the Conservatives by 38%. 

This broadly aligns with the rankings that respondents put on these topics, with 54% saying that bringing down the cost of living should be a top priority for UK political parties, and 51% saying helping the NHS should be a top priority.  

There is a gap between desired and perceived priorities on funding research, with a total of 58% saying this should be either a top or high priority for UK political parties. This gap is wider on supporting research into new medicines in the UK. Some 27% say this should be a top priority, but many respondents feel that it is not a top priority for either party. 

To understand whether a political party’s support for R&D might influence voting preferences, we wanted to hear focus group participants discuss this in their own words. In our December 2022 focus groups, not a single participant across any of the sessions said it would make them more likely to vote for the party in question. Many felt neutral, saying it would have no impact on their choice, but a handful indicated it would have a negative impact, especially given the other pressing issues facing the UK. 

Reactions to increasing or decreasing R&D investment

Key takeaways

  • R&D is not a politically partisan issue and enjoys support across the UK’s political spectrum
  • But public support for R&D investment is fragile and opinions readily shift when R&D is framed in competition with other pressing priorities
  • In focus groups, the cost of living crisis loomed large in everyone’s minds and some people told us that halving the R&D budget felt like a good choice right now
  • There are strong indications that support for R&D investment can be boosted by framing it around a highly motivating issue

Across our May and July 2022 polls, we asked respondents to rate the relative strength of a set of typical arguments against, and in favour of, R&D investment. We found that arguments in favour of investment were generally seen as being stronger than those against it, and we explore these in more detail in the Messages and Messaging section. However, despite this optimistic baseline, there is reason to believe that support for R&D is fragile and our data suggests that opinions can readily shift depend on how R&D investment is framed.

When told about the Government’s commitment to increase R&D investment to £22bn per year, over a third of respondents (38%) in our May 2022 poll felt that this amount was too high, compared with 8% who thought it was too little and 39% who thought it was about right. If this information was provided alongside a reference figure (the NHS budget), there was no significant shift, 37% felt it was too much and 11% thought it was too little.

Given the option to cut R&D investment in favour of other competing priorities, many people preferred to cut the funding. Our May 2022 poll presented a hypothetical Government proposal to immediately halve the R&D budget, with a third of respondents saying they supported this choice. When this cut was framed as freeing up money for hiring nurses or lowering energy bills, an outright majority supported halving the R&D budget. From a methodological perspective, we note that the sample size for these questions is smaller than for other questions because the sample was split in order to test the three scenarios separately.

A similar budget-cutting proposal gained a great deal of support in May 2022 focus groups, with one participant saying they felt most people would agree with such a cut.

Our July 2022 poll posed a similar question, but first exposed respondents to a series of arguments for and against increasing R&D spending. After this priming, the idea of cutting R&D investment was less popular than in our earlier polling. Just 11% of people thought that “taxpayer spending on R&D should be decreased”, with around a third feeling it should be increased and 40% feeling it should stay the same.

Young people were more likely than average to support decreasing taxpayer investment into R&D (17%), but overall the majority of this group thought the budget should stay the same or be increased. Women and people in socioeconomic group DE were less likely to support an increased R&D budget, but this was driven by a higher proportion of “don’t know” responses.

Positively, we saw support across all voter groups; a majority of those who planned to vote Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat at the next election each thought that investment should either be kept at the same level or increased.

Among the 34% who wanted to see taxpayer investment increased, when asked why they took these views, the most frequently mentioned word was “future”. This was referenced in 18% of responses, with men being more likely to include this word than women. A second common theme were spillover benefits framed around financial benefits, jobs and the economy. 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”, and others as helping support medical research and prevent similar crises as the pandemic in the future. Further to this were medical research and the consequences of climate change.

The 40% who felt investment should stay the same appeared more conscious of the existing financial pressures on people, with many highlighting the cost of living, Brexit and the current economic problems or a shortage of public money. This group also described the results of R&D investment as being “less reliable” or “unnecessary”, while others questioned why some R&D was necessary or what it was for. Another theme was that the private sector that “pick up the slack”, which they saw as being a way to save taxpayers’ money.

There were similar themes – current financial pressures and the idea the private sector should be increasing its investment – mentioned by the 11% who wanted to see taxpayer spending decreased, but there was a stronger opinion that R&D is not a good use of taxpayers’ money, considering it uncertain and too undefined, with a number saying that R&D investment was a “waste of taxpayers’ money”. A further theme is the idea that the investment benefits the rich and not the poor, which was more prevalent within the C2DE socioeconomic groups.

In our February 2023 polling, we asked a similar question and almost half (47%) of 4,053 respondents wanted taxpayer investment into R&D to remain at the same level as it is now. Some 14% wanted to see the amount reduced, 24% wanted it to be increased and 16% said they didn’t know. Again, we saw less support for an increase among women, but also a higher proportion of “don’t know” responses from women.

There are strong indications that levels of support for R&D investment is influenced by the issues that are used to frame the choice. We discuss the relative power of these issues in the Issues section – but one noteworthy insight is the difference in attitudes to public borrowing to fund R&D among those who are concerned about climate change.

In our July 2022 poll, 2,500 people selected climate change as one of the “biggest issues facing the country at this time”. This group was more supportive of the UK borrowing money to increase investment in R&D, compared to the wider population. Participants who placed the state of the economy or cost of living among their top concerns did not show a difference on this question, while half of those who placed levels of immigration, levels of taxation or the number of people on welfare among their top concerns would cut R&D investment to reduce borrowing.

Evolving attitudes to R&D investment

Key takeaways

  • People’s attitudes towards R&D investment can change and in some cases we see a positive shift in people’s views towards R&D investment
  • Exposing people to arguments – both for and against – R&D appeared to improve support for investing in R&D, and an honest and robust discussion about the trade-offs of R&D was well-received in our focus groups
  • This is an area for greater exploration, for instance through a piece of public dialogue research, but it indicates receptivity to messages and rationales in favour of R&D, if these are delivered in a targeted way

Our polling asked respondents to rate the relative strength of a series of arguments, both for and against investing in R&D. By using a series of questions to gauge support for R&D investment – or using proxies to indicate support – we observed how opinions changed after people were exposed to these arguments, offering an indication of their ability to change people’s minds about R&D investment.

For instance, in our May 2022 poll, we repeated the question about halving the R&D budget (as outlined above) at a later point in the poll, after respondents had seen a set of arguments for and against R&D. On the second instance, we saw a switch from net support to net opposition towards cutting the R&D budget in the group where no alternative use for the money was given, although the magnitude of this change was small. There was also a slight decrease in net support in the group who were told the budget would go towards energy bills (from 38% to 28%), and towards hiring more nurses (from 34% to 26%).

For our larger poll in July 2022, we carried out a more detailed analysis of how opinions changed over the course of the survey. For this, we compared responses between an early question about support for taxpayer spending (as a proxy for initial support) and a later question on whether the R&D budget should be increased, decreased or kept the same. This second question came after respondents had seen multiple sets of pro-R&D arguments. Note that we used a proxy question in the first instance to avoid opinions becoming set before the main bulk of the questionnaire; see our Methodology section for further discussion on our survey design choices.

At the end of the survey, 22% of those who initially agreed that R&D should not be funded by taxpayers now said that the Government should increase the amount of public money invested on R&D. A further 43% felt it should be kept at £22bn, which represents a firmly positive outcome for the R&D sector. For those who felt neutral about taxpayer investment in R&D, at the end of the survey 25% said the Government should increase the amount it invests in R&D. A further 48% of this group felt spending levels should be kept at £22bn.

Our focus groups also indicated that having the chance to openly discuss R&D with others, and being shown a wide range of R&D examples, can generate a more positive view of R&D among different groups. It is important to note that this is not a substitute for a more in-depth public dialogue to explore this shift in views, including over the longer term.

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