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Which issues matter most to the public – and do they think R&D can help?

To boost the public profile of R&D and reach underrepresented groups, we must understand what issues people already care about, and their attitudes towards fixing them.

We gauged opinions on the major issues facing the public, the UK and the world, and then asked whether there was a role for R&D in solving them. We also explored whether linking R&D investment directly to an important issue alters levels of support.

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

Identifying key issues

Key takeaways

  • People are concerned about the cost of living, the sustainability of the NHS and the impacts of climate change
  • For lots of people, the rising cost of living is the preeminent issue, and when asked to describe their vision of a stronger economy people focussed on very tangible impacts such as higher wages, stable electricity bills and food availability

When interpreting this section, it is important to note that our research was carried out during a time of high inflation and widespread concern about fuel prices. As such, the cost of living tops the list of concerns, followed by the NHS and climate change. As wider polls show, these latter two issues have been on people’s priority lists for several years.  

In focus groups, participants talked about everything being a struggle, describing a sense of moving from crisis to crisis, which was underpinned by concerns about climate change in particular. When asked to describe what a stronger economy would look like, many struggled to articulate it but focused on higher wages, stable electric bills, no food shortages and “being comfortable; not having to struggle on a day-to-day basis”.

Our May 2022 poll asked which issues respondents felt were most immediately important; 74% said cost of living, followed by the state of the economy (42%) and the quality of the NHS (37%). When asked which issues they felt would become more important over the next decade, cost of living was again the main concern (selected by 55%), followed by the quality of the NHS (37%), state of the economy (34%) and threat of climate change (33%).

Our July 2022 poll asked people to select up to three issues they thought were the most important for the UK– which were cost of living (75%), state of the economy (44%) and the NHS (43%).We later asked respondents about some of these issues individually, and asked them to rate their importance from the single most important issue in the UK, to not at all important. Respondents were randomly assigned to issues and therefore did not respond to this question for each issue listed. The cost of living obtained the highest share of respondents describing it as the top issue facing the country (25%), followed by the quality of the NHS and availability of healthcare (13%).

In our December 2022 focus groups, our questions focused on healthcare and the environment as promising connection points for R&D. When considering a trade-off between hypothetical R&D projects in these areas, people were generally more supportive of projects that could save lives – but this impact extended beyond healthcare projects.

In our October 2023 polling, 54% of respondents said that bringing down the cost of living should be a top priority for UK political parties, and 51% said helping the NHS should be a top priority. Some 15% said that funding research generally should be a top priority, and 43% said it should be a high priority.  

This survey also briefly explored attitudes to Artificial Intelligence (which was, at the time of polling, receiving a large amount of political and media attention) in comparison to other issues. This found largely negative, neutral or unsure reactions, with 44% saying they would support Government action to make the UK a global leader in AI (compared with 71% who would support action to make the UK the best place for a company to set up a research department) and 36% saying they would not trust either party when responding to the rise of AI and 22% saying they didn’t know. 

Understanding attitudes

Key takeaways

  • The public tends to feel that quality of life is better now than 50 years ago, but that things are currently changing for the worse
  • People are evenly split on whether the UK should focus on solving problems now, or invest for the future
  • People are divided on their attitudes towards risk-taking, but most believed the UK should use new and creative ways to solve its problems

To put people’s current concerns into context, we asked broader questions in our July 2022, finding that respondents were more likely to feel people are “better off now than 50 years ago”, but that things are “changing for the worse” and that the future is scary rather than exciting.

There was a fairly even split in attitudes towards risk-taking among respondents to our July 2022 poll, with 56% believing that to make things better in the UK “we need to take risks”, and 44% believing that “we cannot afford to take risks”. We also saw appetite for the UK to use new and creative ways to solve its problem (73%), rather than “sticking to existing solutions we know work” (27%). We repeated this question in our February 2023 polls and found very similar results.

When questioned about whether the UK should focus on fixing problems right now, or focus on investing in solutions for the future, the public were evenly split. Some 51% thought the UK’s top priority should be improving things for the future, compared with 49% who felt it should be improving things right now. Similarly, 35% agreed that “There are too many problems now to worry about the future”, compared with 39% who disagreed. There was a recognition that the actions that the UK takes as a country will impact other people in the future, with the majority disagreeing that it wouldn’t have an impact. In our February 2023 polls, we repeated the questions about whether there were too many problems now to worry about the future, and whether the actions we take now will not have much impact on people in the future, finding broadly similar results.

We found that a third of those who agreed with the statement that there are too many problems now to worry about the future, agreed that the actions we take now will not impact people in the future, while 44% disagreed. In contrast, those who disagreed with the statement that there are too many problems now were far more likely to disagree that actions taken now will not impact people in the future (13% agree; 81% disagree).

We saw these results mirrored very clearly in focus groups. Many people emphasised the idea of learning lessons from recent crises, or wanting to leave the world a better place for the next generation; these feelings were particularly strong among those who cared about the environment.

Our polling indicated a strong preference for a UK-focused approach to solving problems, rather than seeking to address purely global issues. Respondents were more likely to say the UK should focus on solving issues in the UK (77%) rather than issues affecting the whole world (23%), and more than twice as many people agreed (51%) than disagreed (24%) that “there are too many problems in our own country to worry about problems in other countries”. Again, we repeated the latter question in our February 2023 polls, and found similar trends.

However, in contrast to our quantitative results, there was a stronger interest in addressing global issues among many focus group respondents, perhaps due to the ability to add more nuance their answers when weighing up the merits of hypothetical but specific research projects being presented to them.

Timeframes and R&D’s relevance to outcomes

The longer timeframes associated with R&D are not something the sector should try to hide from the public, and not a blocker to public support for research. Many people recognised that complex problems take time to solve and expect there to be a time lag before research pays off, although some people do want to see results faster. Shorter timelines are most desirable when research is focused on nearer-term problems such as the cost of living. At the same time, we have found that people consistently seek honesty and transparency in communications. 

Key takeaways

  • R&D is seen as a useful tool for tackling society’s problems, but there’s scope to strengthen that link
  • Opinions on R&D’s inherent time-lag differed – many focus group participants wanted to see outcomes sooner, but some said that complex problems cannot be solved overnight
  • Many respondents feel that research that takes 10 or 25 years is worthwhile investing in, especially when the research is directed towards climate change or medical treatments. In contrast, respondents are less likely to think that research focused on the cost of living is worthwhile if it will take 10 or more years to pay off 
  • There’s appetite to hear about R&D’s long-term benefits and the value to future generations, if this still acknowledges the pressing urgency of current problems

At least a third of respondents across both our May 2022 and February 2023 polling felt that R&D had an essential role in tackling climate change and improving the quality of the NHS, and more than half of respondents felt that R&D was either essential or important for addressing the cost of living.

Looking first at our February 2023 polling, we find that people believe new research is essential for tackling climate change (42%), and securing the UK’s energy supply and lowering the cost of energy bills (43%). This framing can also help R&D messages reach younger people; on climate issues for examples, we see no difference between the youngest and oldest respondents in how essential they believe R&D is for solving the problem. Younger people were more likely to see new R&D as essential or important for addressing poverty and the rising cost of living. 

In our May 2022 poll, we asked participants whether they saw a role for R&D in addressing various issues. More than a third of respondents felt R&D had an essential role in tackling climate change and improving the quality of the NHS, and more than half of respondents felt that R&D was either essential or important for addressing the state of the economy, the cost of living, the state of Britain’s armed forces, the quality and cost of public transport, the threat of terrorism, supporting people in old age, and the quality of and access to schools, colleges and universities.

Younger respondents were more likely than their older counterparts to say that R&D had an essential or vital role in addressing levels of immigration (48% for 25-34s, compared with 22% for 65+); the number of people on welfare (52% for 18-24s; 29% for 65+) and the levels of crime (53% for 18-24s; 33% for 65+). Notably – and in contrast to our February 2023 polling – older people were more likely to see R&D having a role in addressing climate change (60% 18-24s; 75% for 65+). Older people were also more likely to see R&D as being essential or vital role in addressing the quality of the NHS (68% for 18-24s; 81% for 65+).

The longer timeframes associated with R&D are often seen as a sticking point when engaging with the public. To understand public attitudes towards the R&D time-lag, in our May 2022 poll we took the top four issues where respondents saw a role for R&D as a solution, and asked those who thought that R&D had a role in addressing the issue when they thought the benefits would be felt.

Most people recognised that benefits would not come immediately, with less than a 15% selecting ‘within a year’ from the options. A similarly small proportion selected ‘after 2030’, apart from for climate change, where respondents felt that benefits would take longer to appear.

In a separate question in our May 2022 poll, we presented respondents with a set of interventions for each issue, either an immediate non-R&D investment or an R&D project, and asked them to select up to three that they thought would have the most positive impact on quality of our lives within the next year; by 2025 and by 2030.

For the first two time periods, the top three interventions were immediate pay-offs: “Investing in the NHS, such as hiring more doctors and nurses”, “Investing in addressing the rising cost of living through cutting taxes or increased welfare” and “Investing in building more clean energy sources in the UK”. However, when the time period was ‘by 2030’, there was appetite for the longer-term R&D options and “Investing in the development of new medicines to cure diseases” moved up to third place.

In our October 2023 polling, we included a section seeking to explore this further. First, we asked a broad question about expectations on the time it should take for R&D to have results or solve the problems it is seeking to, splitting the sample so that a quarter of respondents saw one of four different timeframes: 1, 5, 10 or 25 years. 

We found that 26% said that if R&D was expected to take a year to achieve the desired results, it would be quicker than expected and therefore very worthwhile investing in. Just 10% said that this was too long to pay off to be a worthwhile investment. These proportions switched as the time periods increased, with 34% saying that 25 years would be too long to pay off, and 3% saying that it would be quicker than expected. For each time period, a plurality – between 45% and 58% – said that it was worth investing in and takes about the right amount of time.  

We later asked the same question but framed around three different research topics: climate change, cost of living and medical treatments. Climate and medical treatments are both issues that respondents were more willing to expect longer timeframes for results to be achieved; for both, projects of 10 years were seen as being worthwhile investing in (56% and 67% respectively). In contrast, solutions to the cost of living that take 10 years or more are not seen as worthwhile to the majority of respondents.  

When asked directly how long research should take to get results to be worth investing Government money in, the most-selected answer was at most 4-5 years (selected by 25%), followed by 1-3 years (22%) and 6-10 years (17%). Notably, 20% said that they didn’t know. Younger respondents are slightly more likely to seek nearer-term solutions – 63% of those aged 18-24 selected responses within 5 years, compared with 47% of those aged 65+. Among our segments (see Segmenting Our Audiences) we see that, as predicted, the Present Focussed group want to see results sooner, with 66% seeking results within 5 years, compared to 39% of Future Focussed. 

In our December 2022 focus groups, participants were asked to prioritise a set of R&D projects or proposals, and asked to consider how much the specified timeframe influenced their decisions. Of those who expressed a preference for projects with shorter timeframes, some wanted action on issues that directly affected them and those around them. Others chose NHS-related projects motivated by a sense that the NHS was under pressure at that time. Others prioritised personal benefit, and so favoured shorter-term investment that would be felt in their lives more directly.

However, many respondents recognised that R&D investments need longer timeframes, and said that the timeframe was less important to them than the issue that was being addressed. Indeed, some explained that the problems being tackled were complex and should be expected to take longer to solve – or that they were simply worth taking the time to solve. Even when given a relatively distant ‘end date’ of 2040, many participants did not find that timeline off-putting for ambitious goals such as dramatically reducing plastic usage or reaching Net Zero. As discussed in the sections on Investing in R&D and Messages and Messaging, there was a desire for accountability and greater detail when a project had a longer timeframe.

This indicates appetite for longer-term R&D projects when they are framed in the right way, with sufficient clarity and explanation of the timeframes and progress points along the way.

How linking R&D to issues influences opinions

Key takeaways

  • Relating R&D to tangible issues can be a powerful motivator of support​, especially among audiences under the age of 45
  • The power of different issues to motivate people differs across demographic groups, meaning that linkages must be carefully targeted
  • Interest in the intended goal of R&D often trumps concerns about other variables, such as the time-lag or corporate involvement

We have consistently found that linking R&D to issues of concern – from the environment to job creation – can influence support, but this relationship differs between audiences and between the types of issues being referenced.

In our July 2022 poll, respondents were asked to choose between two interventions for tackling an example issue – either investing in R&D in that particular area, or cutting investment in R&D to tackle it via non-R&D means. For each, a specific or a topic-appropriate R&D intervention was described – this removed the need for respondents to imagine a relevant project, but it should be noted that the choice of R&D intervention may have also influenced reactions.

We found that respondents consistently favoured the R&D intervention when given a binary choice, with the trend remaining true for all demographic groups for the issues of the military, environment and jobs. However, younger age groups were more likely to favour the non-R&D intervention when the issue in question was the cost of living, and net favouring of the R&D solution among 18-24s was -4%. The gap was also smaller between the R&D and non-R&D topic for these age groups on mental health, housing and levelling up.

Similarly, women were less likely to favour the R&D solution across all issues, and more women favoured the non-R&D solution when the issue in question was the quality of NHS and healthcare, with net favouring of the R&D solution being -6%.

We then gauged how people’s support for Government investment into R&D was influenced by linking that R&D investment to a specific issue, and found that this linkage was a powerful motivator. We discuss support for R&D investment more broadly in the section Investing in R&D.

We found that age was the biggest demographic differentiator. Younger respondents – particularly those aged 18-24 – were far more likely to say that they would become more, or much more, supportive of Government investment into R&D if they knew it was going to support almost any issue. The exception was the ability of the UK to defend itself, where there was a net increase in support of just 15% among 18-24 year olds, compared with 64% for climate change or cost of living.

However, it is important to note that older respondents were already more supportive of Government investment in R&D, and so their lower net support does not necessarily mean they would be less supportive overall.

The final part of this question set presented respondents with a hypothetical scenario, where a political party was campaigning to either halve the £22bn R&D target to spend the money on non-R&D solutions to a specified issue, or to increase the R&D target to £30bn in search of solutions to that same issue. Some groups saw a version of the statements with no issue mentioned, to provide a baseline.

In contrast to a previous version of this question that required a binary response, this formulation explored the relative power of different issues to influence overall support for R&D investment.

Looking first at support for the proposal to increase R&D investment and spend it on a particular issue, we saw that only the military and levelling up linked proposals received less support than the baseline; at the other end of the spectrum were jobs, environment and health, which substantially drove up support for increasing R&D investment.

We also compared responses to the proposals to cut or increase the R&D budget. This emphasised the way in which the public puts the issue being addressed front and centre. Indeed, for two issues of high concern – healthcare and the cost of living – we saw support for both the scenario to cut R&D investment and to increase it; addressing the issue appears to be the primary concern, rather than the impact on the R&D budget. We see this effect particularly strongly in younger age groups, indicating that they are highly motivated to support any intervention on an issue of concern to them, rather than being motivated specifically by R&D as a tool.

For R&D advocates, it is important to recognise that linking R&D investment to specific issues brings a risk as well as an opportunity: if R&D spending is tensioned against an issue that particular audiences are passionate about, support for R&D investment could be lost rather than gained.

Our December 2022 focus groups indicated that the specified goal of R&D can drive support, with the outcome of a proposed R&D project trumping concerns about issues such as the time-lag involved, the motives of the organisations funding or conducting the R&D, where the R&D is taking place, and – in some cases – the potential for local job creation. This mindset emerged more strongly among those who were passionate about the environment, compared to those who saw other issues as a priority.

In our December 2022 focus groups, we found that support for R&D investment was less strong among those who were more concerned about the issues affecting their day-to-day lives and who wanted to see more immediate action. For these individuals, R&D funding was a luxury that might not pay off. This was especially felt among those who primarily viewed R&D through the lens of consumer tech and products. 

However, some did see the relevance and value of investing in R&D now to solve problems into the future, both for themselves and the next generation.

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