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Who do the public want to hear from about R&D, and why?

There are many people working across the R&D sector, in a variety of roles, as well as active and passionate supporters from outside.

Understanding how the public respond to these potential messengers can help us to target our efforts effectively.

We sought to gauge opinions on different messengers, both with and without a specific message. We gauged levels of trust in a range of messengers, and explored whether there was a risk of voices from within the R&D sector appearing “self-serving” if they spoke up for greater R&D investment.

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

Key qualities in R&D messengers

Key takeaways

  • After seeing several scientific experts in action during the coronavirus pandemic, many people hold them in high regard and consider them well-placed to speak about R&D
  • Business voices can also connect with specific audiences, though we see some concerns around the potential for biased opinions
  • Politicians, of all stripes, perform poorly as ambassadors for R&D with lots of people

We used our December 2022 focus groups to understand the qualities that the public wanted in spokespeople for R&D investment. There was a strong appetite to hear from experts with a track record in R&D, and a demand for honesty, independent and evidence. This mirrors the results about the type of messages that resonate most with the public, where participants called for transparency, accountability and realism (see Messages and Messaging).

The coronavirus pandemic came up in multiple focus groups, but was raised consistently in conversations about messengers, with multiple references to the UK Government’s televised press conferences. Participants referred to the scientific messengers involved – often by name – and praised their expertise, evidence and perceived honesty, even in challenging context.

Other commonly mentioned names were trusted and well-known research celebrities and wider broadcasters, such as David Attenborough, Brian Cox and Louis Theroux.

Business spokespeople were often mentioned in discussions, and while opinions were mixed – with some people seeing a potential for bias – there was a generally positive attitude towards businesses that were seen to have expertise in R&D.

Political leaders, meanwhile, were described by focus participants as being inherently untrustworthy and unlikely to keep R&D-related promises, with some being sceptical that politicians would support long-term investments given their careers might be over by the time the benefits were seen. This emphasises the need for the sector to establish a vision for R&D that can persist beyond individual governments.

Opinions on R&D messengers

Key takeaways

  • Household names and voices from within the R&D community are well trusted, and there is appetite for hear more from them
  • Politicians were rated as the least reliable, interesting and trustworthy messengers on R&D
  • Businesses received a mixed response, with some groups being more interested in hearing from them than other groups

Choosing the right messenger to reach the right audience is crucial. We used our polling to test the credibility of both specific and broader categories of messengers. In our May and July polling, we gave respondents hypothetical R&D-related headlines and randomised the stated author. We then gauged people’s feelings towards the statement, as well as towards the messenger more broadly.

For each, we measured respondents’ agreement with the main argument presented, tested the messengers’ perceived reliability on the topic of R&D, and gauged people’s appetite for hearing more from that messenger on this topic. Our results showed that political leaders of various types performed worst, while household names and sector voices performed best.

In our May polling, the strongest agreement with a headline was seen for a message about life-saving research from Cancer Research UK, where there was net agreement of 80%. The least popular argument was about research being the best way to “boost Britain” and the need to “turbo-charge science and technology” from then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with net agreement of 25%.

Among the political messengers we tested, the “Science Minister” was seen as being more reliable than others, and was also someone people wanted to hear more from on R&D.

At the other end of the spectrum were household names; Cancer Research UK, David Attenborough, Martin Lewis and Professor Chris Whitty, who – as noted in the previous section – has remained a memorable figure for many people thanks to the televised coronavirus press conferences. We also saw positive responses to R&D voices who would not be expected to have such strong public name recognition, such as Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, CEO of UK Research and Innovation, as well as an unnamed group of researchers from the University of Nottingham. In the middle were business voices, along with those who have may be seen as having less direct experience of R&D, such as Prince William or M&S CEO Steve Rowe.

Messages were randomised between participants, meaning that the sample sizes are too small to analyse trends for smaller demographic groups. However, for larger demographic groups, there were notable trends. For instance, we find that a message about “boosting Britain” put forward by political messengers performed considerably worse among women. It is likely this is due to a rejection of the message, rather than the messenger, as the differences between men and women on other perceptions – messenger reliability and interest in hearing more – were inconsistent.

Respondents in groups ABC1 – who we know are more likely to be familiar with R&D (see Knowledge of R&D) – tended to agree with the messages more than those in C2DE. This effect was more pronounced with Labour messengers, while Cancer Research UK narrowed the gap. There were also clear differences between ABC1 and C2DE respondents in stated reliability and wanting to hear more from Sadiq Khan and James Dyson.

Our July 2022 poll tested a wider range of messengers. We tested reactions to two R&D-related headlines attributed to one of four political job titles: the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, your local MP and the Government Minister for Science, Research and Innovation. These headlines stated either:

  • It’s time to boost our investment in R&D and make Britain a science superpower
  • It’s time to boost our investment in R&D and make Britain a world leader in research

We gauged agreement with the opinion expressed in the headline; asking people if they would be interested in reading the full article; if they felt the messenger was a reliable source of information on R&D; and if they trusted the messenger to write fairly about R&D. These results are supported by our focus group findings, where politicians were broadly seen as untrustworthy and unlikely to keep their promises.

There is little difference in how much respondents agreed with either message from the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition or the Science Minister, but it was slightly less convincing coming from the local MP. However – and in common with broader public opinions surveys – political messengers are divisive, with the Science Minister being the only political messenger to achieve positive levels of trust.

These trends are relatively consistent across demographic groups, and largely mirror those in our May 2022 poll. Women were less likely to agree with messages from political messengers and less likely to trust these messengers. Those in group AB are more likely to agree with the statements, and are considerably more likely to agree they trust the Science Minister, although this is partly driven by more uncertainty among other social grades.

To understand people’s reaction to realistic messages about R&D investment around key issues, we split the sample and tested messages on the environment, health and the economy, mixing the attribution to test a range of sectors and voices.

The health-related message performed slightly better than the environment and economic messages in terms of the proportion of respondents who agreed with the opinion expressed in the headlines.

For each type of message, a household name drove agreement up: for the health message, having Cancer Research UK as a messenger led to 68% of respondents agreeing with the message. The next highest was Professor Chris Whitty (58%). For the environmental message, 66% agreed with the message when it came from David Attenborough, compared with 55% from the WWF. For the economic message, 57% agreed when it came from Martin Lewis, compared with the next highest, which was the London School of Economics at 50%.

When people were asked whether they would trust the messengers to write fairly about R&D, there was a similar trend, with household names performing well and David Attenborough again ranked highest (net trust, 62%). Businesses tended to do less well, with US-based company Tesla ranking lowest (net -15%).

Some messengers stood out as being more trusted by younger respondents, these were trade unions and a “conservation group in the local area”, while older respondents were more likely to trust Professor Chris Whitty and AstraZeneca. The economic case appeared to have less cut through with women, and trust levels were lower for Rolls Royce and Siemens among women.

In group AB, Professor Chris Whitty scored nearly as highly on trust as David Attenborough and Cancer Research UK, while both US companies that we tested performed worse among DE respondents, from an already low base.

However, it is important to emphasise that the broad ordering of messengers is very consistent all demographics: there was no messenger who performed particularly well with one group while performing badly in another.

Focus groups supported these findings, with public appetite to hear from experts in their fields, in particular those considered independent and honest. As discussed previously, the televised Coronavirus conferences had real salience, with people naming Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van Tam as experts who they trusted to be honest, even when delivering bad news.

In our October 2023 polling, we asked who would be best able to explain how Research & Development and Research & Innovation work in the UK, respectively. The majority of respondents selected research institutes followed by universities , regardless of which term was being considered.  

Some 58% of 1,094 said research institutes would be best able to talk about R&D, and 57% of 956 said the same for R&I. Universities were selected by 54% of those who saw the question framed around R&D, and 52% of those who saw R&I. There was then a drop-off before the Government (36% for R&D, 34% for R&I), the NHS (29% for each) and large businesses (26% for R&D, 22% for R&I). 

Bias when talking about R&D investment

Key takeaways

  • The public are conscious of the potential for bias, but still consider voices from within the R&D sector to be well-placed and honest about the level of funding needed from taxpayers for R&D
  • Research charities, researchers and universities performed especially well as messengers, while business performed less strongly but did cut through with men, those aged 25-34, those in group AB, and among those in the highest income brackets

We sought to test our hypothesis that R&D voices calling for greater investment in R&D could be seen as self-serving and biased, and would therefore be less trusted as messengers. The data indicates that, while the public are conscious of the potential for bias when discussing R&D funding, there is still a great deal of support for the expertise that sector voices bring.

Looking at broad groups of potential spokespeople for messages about investing public money into R&D, our polling found more trust in researchers, research charities and universities than politicians, while the picture was mixed for businesses. Focus group discussions generally supported these findings, but there was an awareness of the potential for bias and recognition that everyone, even researchers, could have an agenda.

In our May 2022 polling, respondents were prompted with a statement about a group of researchers or scientists calling for the Government to invest more money into either climate change R&D or developing life-saving medicines, and then asked if they agreed with certain statements.

In all cases, there was stronger agreement with the statement “Researchers/scientists know better than others what is needed in research/science so it makes sense for them to talk about it”, than that “It is self-interested for researchers/scientists to talk about more funding for research/science” and that “Researchers/scientists should stick to research/science, and not get involved in politics”.

We also found overall disagreement with the statement that “Researchers/scientists don’t really understand what is needed to make people’s lives better”.

In our July 2022 poll, the majority (60%) of the 8,474 respondents felt that “Researchers would be able to make a convincing case for R&D investment because they understand the benefits of it”, compared with 20% who chose the reverse option that researchers would not be able to do so.

However, the split was more even for business voices, with 42% thinking they would be able to make a convincing case compared with 36% who felt they wouldn’t because they might benefit from it. Male respondents were more supportive of business voices, while the split was even for female respondents, with 37% choosing each statement.

In a separate set of questions, just over half of all respondents trusted each of research charities (54%), researchers (54%) and universities (51%) to be honest about how much the Government should invest in R&D. In contrast, just 19% trusted politicians in this context, and 29% trusted business voices. For both of these latter messengers, there was overall net negative trust in them on R&D investment messages.

Agreement varied between groups, but tended to be higher among men, those in group AB and those under 45, with trust in researchers and universities peaking for 25-34s, and for research charities among those aged 18-24.

Meanwhile, there were greater levels of agreement with “I trust businesses to be honest about how much money the Government should invest in R&D” among men, those aged 25-34, those in group AB, and among those in the highest income brackets, emphasising the need to tailor messaging and messengers to the right audiences.

Local messengers

Key takeaways

  • About two-thirds of people don’t feel well informed about R&D happening in their local area, and a similar proportion would like to hear more about it
  • People in group AB, and those under 45, were most interested in hearing more about nearby R&D
  • The public tended to trust people working in R&D in their area to talk about its benefits

We wanted to explore the potential of using a local connection to engage people with R&D. In the Knowledge of R&D section, we discussed people’s regional associations with R&D and found that – on average – only about a third of people associated their region with R&D.

In our July 2022 poll, almost a quarter of people agreed or strongly agreed that their area was well-known for research (23% of 8,474); this was higher for men, those in group AB, those with higher levels of education and slightly higher for those in urban or city centres.

In a separate question, a majority (66% of 8,474) agreed with the statement “I know hardly anything about the research being done in my area”, with only 12% disagreeing. Agreement was higher among female respondents (70% agree) and those in group DE (69% agree). Agreement was considerably lower among those who had completed a postgraduate degree.

We also found that a similar proportion (65%) of people wanted to hear more about R&D being done in their area; compared to 10% who didn’t. Interest in hearing more was higher among those under 45, and those in group AB. We found similarly positive responses – aligned with a sense of local pride – among focus group participants when talking about R&D local to them, most notably in our May 2022 focus groups where participants in Greater Manchester were told about the city’s role in the discovery of graphene.

We asked respondents to our July 2022 poll if they would trust people who work in R&D in their area to talk about its benefits – 56% agreed that they would, with 8% disagreeing. Agreement was higher among group AB and those who had completed postgraduate degrees. The region with the highest net agreement was the North East (65% agree, 6% disagree); while the lowest was Wales (53% agree, 9% disagree), although many of the other regions were within the margin of error for these results.

We asked respondents whether they would be interested in seeing or taking part in a variety of activities to find out more about the R&D happening in their area. Seeing articles in local newspapers was the most popular option (47% of respondents), followed by participating in a local research study (32%), and going to open days at local research institutions (32%) or universities (29%). Again, those in group AB and with higher formal educational attainment tended to be more interested in these opportunities.

In our July 2022 polling we asked respondents to describe examples of past or present R&D in their area. We 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. Some respondents also gave specific businesses’ names, which supports the idea that we can use local pride and local industry as strong spokespeople for R&D.

Elsewhere in the Discovery Decade project we have worked with experts in engaging the public on topics related to R&D, many of which cover the issues discussed in this section on local messengers; you can read the reports from our workshop series on the page Collating Best Practice.

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