Opinions on R&D messengers
- 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).