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Knowledge of R&D

How much does the public know about R&D, who funds it and who carries it out?

We sought to gauge existing awareness and knowledge of R&D among different public audiences.

This includes exploring people’s awareness of the organisations and actors which fund and conduct R&D, and the opportunities that the public have to connect with R&D in daily life.

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


Guide to interpreting this data

Awareness and knowledge of R&D

Key takeaways

  • Awareness of the term “R&D” is concentrated in certain groups in society, and most people say they know nothing or not very much about what R&D is
  • News sources, the workplace and people’s education are the primary drivers for awareness of R&D as a term

Awareness of the term ‘R&D’ is patchy. More than half (52%) of 4,005 respondents in our February 2023 polling said that they either hadn’t heard of the acronym “R&D” or had but didn’t know what it means. This is compared to 44% who said that they both heard of the acronym “R&D” and knew what it meant. 

This was slightly higher than in our May 2022 poll, where just 38% of 2,037 respondents had both heard of the acronym “R&D” and knew what it meant.

In both polls, awareness was lower on average for female respondents and those in socioeconomic groups DE. We also found, again in both polls, that awareness increased when the term was spelled out. Again, the February 2023 polling found higher levels of self reported awareness, with 82% of 4,005 respondents saying they had heard of “research and development”. This is compared with 70% of 2,037 respondents in our May 2022 poll who said they had heard of the phrase ”research and development”.

Across all our work, we found that familiarity came through hearing the term in the news, in their workplace or during their education. Exposure to these terms in the workplace was heavily influenced by the type of role someone occupies, with those in group AB far more likely to encounter the terms than those in group DE.

However, awareness of the terms “R&D” or “research and development” does not always translate into an individual knowing what R&D looks like in practice, or their ability to identify diverse examples of R&D from a list provided. 

In our July 2022 poll, a very similar proportion of people were aware of the term “R&D” compared to our May 2022 poll. When respondents to this July 2022 poll were asked how much they knew about R&D, more than half felt they knew “nothing” or “not very much” about R&D, with female respondents and people in socioeconomic group DE more likely to choose these responses than average. This trend across socioeconomic groups means that those in group AB were more than twice as likely as those in DE to say they knew “a lot” or “a moderate amount” about R&D (61% AB compared to 29% DE).

We repeated this question in our February 2023 poll and found a similar result, with about half (52%) of 4,005 respondents saying they knew nothing or not very much about R&D. Just 7% said they knew a lot about R&D. Similarly, self-reported knowledge was higher among men, those in group AB, and those with higher education attainment.

In our February 2023 polling we also explored whether people know what researchers or scientists do. We found that the majority disagreed with the statement “I don’t really know what a [researcher OR scientist] does”, with the results being fairly similar between the two terms. Again, we found some of the strongest trends by socioeconomic group and education attainment level, where those with GCSE-level qualifications only and those in group DE felt they knew the least.

In focus groups, the participant’s knowledge of R&D ranged from those who said they knew very little, through those who had a vague sense of what it was, to those who were able to talk about both the broad topic and specific examples. Those in the latter group tended to be in jobs where they were more likely to encounter R&D concepts, although there were exceptions in both directions.

Our data indicates that the public are more likely to label certain types of research activity as “R&D” compared to others examples. When provided with a diverse list of potential examples of R&D, medical research and product development were far more likely to be selected as being “R&D” compared to examples of humanities research.

Younger age groups and those in socioeconomic group DE were more likely to be uncertain about what counts as R&D. Notably, those aged 18-24 were the least likely to select the example of a pharmaceutical company running clinical trials, and nearly as many in this group selected a company using CGI to make more realistic images. These results were mirrored in our focus groups, with most people gravitating towards market research, consumer tech development and medical research as examples of R&D – although some participants did give unprompted examples of social science, engineering or research for policymaking.  

In addition, in our July 2022 polling, we provided respondents with the opportunity to write in their own words about R&D. When asked about an interesting or exciting piece of research that they had heard of in the last few years. Some 36% of these responses included a reference to medical research, demonstrating further that this topic is often front of mind. We found that space was mentioned in 8% of responses – many of which talked about the James Webb Space Telescope, which had gained a lot of media coverage around the time of polling. Climate change was mentioned in 7% of responses, often focusing on research into new renewable energy sources or the roll out of existing sources.

Awareness and opinions on R&D actors

Key takeaways

  • For many people, the term ‘R&D’ primarily evokes consumer tech and large businesses
  • When prompted in focus groups, people readily slot universities into this picture of the R&D process, but the scale of the university R&D workforce is largely invisible

We explored people’s awareness of the R&D process, including who funds and conducts it. We wanted to understand which parts of the complex R&D system are most familiar to different groups, and to gauge any pre-existing perceptions they have of those different actors within the R&D system.

When prompted with options, people identify universities, large businesses and the national government as the organisations that carry out the most R&D. These three groups are also viewed as the primary funders of R&D, although universities drop from first position to third.  

In contrast, during our focus groups, businesses were front of mind when people were asked both who conducts and who funds R&D. Although universities performed strongly in our prompted survey question, they were rarely cited in focus groups as a place where R&D happens, until a prompt was offered by a facilitator.

There were strong views on the motivations of the different types of organisations that conduct or fund R&D. Private businesses were described as profit-driven but faster at achieving research goals, while universities were described as altruistically-driven but slower at delivering results. This view of universities may be linked to a repeated perception among focus group participants that R&D in universities was carried out by students or lecturers “in their spare time”, suggesting that the scale of the professionalised research workforce within UK universities is not reaching most people.

Charities were also mentioned in the focus groups and were considered to have altruistic motivations, but awareness of their significant role in funding UK R&D was particularly low compared to other types of institution.  

Where the public think R&D happens

Key takeaways

  • The majority of people in every UK region think that London carries out more R&D than other parts of the country, but we see a familiarity effect where people also tend to say their own region carries out R&D
  • About a third of people associate R&D with their own region, citing tangible examples such as nearby universities, NHS institutions and businesses 

Our data indicates that many people see R&D as being unequally spread across the UK, with a strong bias towards London. However, we also see significant untapped potential to build on people’s existing regional or local association with R&D, including pride in local R&D and people’s appetite to hear more about R&D in their area.

Our May 2022 poll asked people to identify the top three regions of the UK where they thought R&D was carried out. London was by far the strongest response and was chosen by 69% of 2,037 respondents, followed by South East England which was chosen by 29% of people.

However, about half of people said they associate R&D with their own region, citing nearby universities, NHS institutions and business as the most common drivers of this connection. However, these local connection points varied between regions, with historical links to R&D being more prominent for people living in Scotland, the West Midlands and North East England, and local universities performing strongly in the East of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

When asked to describe examples of past or present R&D in their area in the July 2022 poll, we saw medical research feature prominently – in 51% of responses – with 9% of these focusing on Covid and 9% on cancer. Industrial research also performed well when tied to local knowledge, with 23% of responses referencing this, with examples including the steel and car industries. Other notable themes included tech R&D, such as robotics or space research, and renewable energy, such as nuclear power and wind turbines.

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