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Opportunities to Engage

What opportunities are there for people to engage with R&D, and do they want to hear more? 

To effectively engage the public in discussions about R&D and R&D investment, we must understand how and where to reach them, what appetite they have to learn more about R&D and what sort of information they are interested in.  

To a greater or lesser extent, all our public attitudes research feeds into this discussion; for instance, our Terminology, Messages and Messengers sections all consider the ways in which the public can be engaged with R&D and what language and issues resonate most with different audiences. 

However, we also asked more specific questions to explore what opportunities audiences have – and take up – to engage with research; whether there is demand for more information; and whether and how people would be convinced of the value of R&D investment. 

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

Guide to interpreting this data

Opportunities to engage people with R&D

Key takeaways

  • Almost half of people have watched a TV show or film about research in the last six months
  • But almost a fifth haven’t engaged in any of a list of 14 typical R&D-related activities during that time period, rising to a quarter of those in socioeconomic group DE 
  • In contrast, the 18-24 age bracket is a high point for engaging with many of the activities, particularly the more active examples 
  • Looking to the future, around a third said they would read newspaper articles about R&D in the next few months, and around a fifth said they would look out for what political parties say about R&D  
  • However, a fifth of respondents said they would not do any of a list of activities centred around finding out more information about R&D 

To understand where people were encountering R&D in daily life, we asked respondents in our July 2022 poll to select any R&D-related activities they had done in the past six months from a list of examples ranging from watching a relevant TV show to taking part in a clinical trial. The most common activity was watching a TV show or film about research, followed by donating to charity or reading about R&D in the news.  

These results give R&D advocates a sense of where to find existing audiences, but notably, almost a fifth of people had done none of the listed activity – rising to just over a quarter of those in socioeconomic group DE. This reinforces the calls – and actions – of those across the R&D community to pursue engagement routes beyond the traditional options, to reach a broader audience. Without finding new points of connection, a gulf will remain between R&D and large sections of the public. 

Our February 2023 polling asked respondents if they talked about new discoveries and inventions with their friends and families, and more than half agreed that they did. In contrast to broader trends showing that younger people are less engaged with R&D, net agreement with the statement was highest among 25-34 year olds (47%); this is in contrast with groups 55-64 and over 65s, where net agreement was just 5%. We also see this age-related trend reflected in July 2022 question about broader engagement opportunities, where 18-24 year olds are more likely to say they have discussed research with friends or family.  

Towards the end of our February 2023 polling, we asked which activities related to R&D respondents would be likely to do in the next few months. This provided a shorter list of options but again ranged from the more passive (watching videos or reading a newspaper article) to the more active (writing to MP about the benefits of R&D investment). Reading newspaper articles was the most popular activity, selected by 36% of all respondents. Some 22% selected each of the following options: looking out for what political parties say about R&D, talking to friends and family and watching videos about R&D online. However, a similar proportion (21%) said they would do none of the activities provided. 

Younger groups were more likely to say they would watch videos about R&D online, while those aged 45-54 were more likely to say they would do none (29%). Those in group AB and with higher formal education levels were more likely to select more responses, while those in group DE and those with GCSEs were most likely to say they would do no activity in their respective demographic groups. 

The most commonly-selected response among Ideologically Conflicted was none of the above (55%). Watching online videos and sharing on social media are more popular with the Present Focussed than other segments, and going to a public event about R&D is more popular with the Issue Driven. 

Public appetite for more information about R&D

Key takeaways

  • The majority of respondents say they would be interested in finding out more about why the UK invests in R&D  
  • More than a third said they would be convinced to seek out more information on UK investment in R&D if a new invention that benefitted their own lives came out of Government funded R&D  
  • R&D advocates can fill a gap in provision of information on R&D investment and its benefits: At the moment, a plurality say they would seek out more information on the topic from Government sources, but our wider research found that these sources do not command a broad or high level of trust 

Throughout our research, we have sought to understand not just what people know about R&D, but how much appetite there is for more information about R&D.  

In our July 2022 poll, we found that a majority agreed with the statement “I know hardly anything about the research being done in my area”, but a similar proportion (64%) wanted to hear more about R&D being done in their area. We then asked what activities they would be interested in seeing or taking part in to learn more about local R&D, with the most popular option being articles in local newspapers was the most popular option, followed by participating in a local research study and going to open days at local research institutions or universities. (This question is discussed in more detail in the Messengers section.) 

Building on this to understand interest in more information on R&D investment specifically, our February 2023 polling asked if respondents would be personally interested in finding out more about why the UK invests in R&D and the results of R&D in the UK. Some 21% said they would be very interested and 48% somewhat interested in finding out more; this was higher among men and those in group AB. Respondents’ voting intention did not have a significant effect on interest levels, again demonstrating the broad appeal of R&D has across the political spectrum.  

We then asked them where they would go to find out more information about R&D. The most popular sources are Government (selected by 44%), newspapers (by 26%) and education institutions like colleges and universities (25%), along with “online articles and media from other sources” (40%). Notably, 12% selected ‘Don’t know’, which is higher than podcasts, public events, all social media except YouTube, and their employers. Differences by age tend to align with predictable trends in media consumption – for instance higher social media usage in younger groups, with 33% of 18-24s saying they would look at YouTube, which is second only to the “other sources” option. 

Universities and newspapers skew towards the Ideologically Aligned, while social media tends to perform worse with the Future Focussed group – likely due to the higher proportion of older people in this segment. There was a high level of ‘Don’t know’ responses from the Ideologically Conflicted segment (33%). 

Finally, we asked if a set of events would convince respondents to seek out more information about UK investment in R&D and its impact, such as a new invention that benefitted their own lives or negative national or local impacts due to decreased R&D investment. The most likely option overall was “If there was a new invention which came out of Government funded R&D that helped me in my life” (selected by 35%). Men were generally more likely than women, and those in group AB than any other socioeconomic group, to select any answer.

Convincing the public of the value of R&D investment

Key takeaways

  • The best ways to convince people that R&D investment is worthwhile is to offer examples of R&D and its impacts 
  • Demonstrating benefits that are closer to home can appeal to certain groups, including younger people 

The Discovery Decade’s work aims to support R&D advocates as they both make the case for investment in R&D and seek to demonstrate the value of this investment to the public. It was therefore vital to ask the public directly whether anything – for instance specific activities, language or messengers – that would help persuade them that R&D was worthwhile. When considering this question, it is particularly important to recognise the point from which different audiences are starting and tailor messaging accordingly. 

We asked focus group participants what would convince them of the need to invest in R&D, or how they might convince someone they knew that R&D investment was important. In response, they talked about emphasising local or personal connections, explaining the rationale for investment or clearly showing the results of R&D. (This is discussed in more detail in the Messages section.) 

In our February 2023 polling, we asked what could convince respondents it was worth investing money in R&D and gave a set of feasible ways that R&D advocates could do this, informed by the focus group participants’ responses.  

Broadly, we found that the best performing suggestions were examples of R&D taking place at the moment and its potential positive impact (selected by 40%) and examples where R&D has had a positive impact in the past (selected by 39%).  

When looking at differences by age, we find that older groups are more likely to be interested in general examples of R&D’s importance, while younger groups are interested in ways R&D could save them money or examples of people they know who benefit from R&D. 

Looking at our segments, as we might expect, the groups that are more supportive of R&D tend to be better able to name what would convince them of the value of R&D. However, positively, we do find that only a third (35%) of the Ideologically Conflicted group say that they are unsure, or that nothing could convince them of the value of R&D.

The Issue Driven and Ideologically Conflicted segments have similar levels of interest in local area R&D and examples of people who they know benefitting as they do in examples of past and present R&D. Although this effect is seen for a smaller proportion than with the other segments, it indicates that a more diverse approach to demonstrating the value of R&D could cut through with this group, within the existing expectations from those less instinctively connected to R&D.

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