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What is the best way to talk to the public about R&D?

The R&D community use many different terms and taglines to talk about what they do and, understandably, the public can struggle to connect these terms together to see the overall picture. Overall, this creates a ‘terminology clutter’ that risks confusing the public, fragmenting the sector’s public image, and obscuring the true breadth and value of the sector’s work.  

We sought to understand how different public audiences respond to a range of terms and taglines throughout our polling, as well as asking focus group participants to describe the R&D community’s work in their own words. 

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. It describes in detail the survey questions that focused on terminology and language in the order that they were carried out. In addition to this, we have produced a briefing paper to summarise key points on terminology.

Guide to interpreting this data


Key takeaways

  • There is no ‘silver bullet’ term for describing R&D activities that immediately cuts through with all groups, but several of the terms commonly used by the R&D sector feel familiar to people and do not impede support for investment
  • More informal terms, such as “New Discoveries”, were poorly received by most people
  • Terms including “Science” and “Research and Development” generated positive connotations in the minds of many people, being described as “smart” and “reassuring
  • R&D advocates could consider adopting more consistent language when describing what the R&D sector does, to reduce ‘terminology clutter’ for public audiences
  • Our research suggests that “Research and Development” and “Research and Innovation” could both serve the sector well and could communicate a broad range of activities There is higher familiarity with Research and Development, but in a range of areas the terms can be used interchangeably, with sufficient and understanding across different audiences

The R&D community use many different terms to talk about what they do and, understandably, the public can struggle to connect these terms together to see the overall picture. This ‘terminology clutter’ can obscure the breadth and value of the sector’s work. We tested a range of terms throughout the polling, and asked focus group participants to describe the R&D community’s work in their own words.

In all focus groups, people tended to use the terms “innovation” or “innovative” and “research” quite naturally. When asked about the meaning of terms such as “research and development” or “R&D”, we found that participants quickly described R&D as an umbrella term under which other related terms could sit. Many instinctively saw the two elements – “research” and “development” – as different parts of an overall process and felt they knew the difference between these two activities.

In our May 2022 focus groups with people from Greater Manchester, we saw different reactions to the terms “Research & Development” or “R&D” between socioeconomic groups. Participants from groups C2 and D were more likely to prefer “innovation” over “R&D”, while those in groups AB and C1 – who also had greater prior awareness of R&D as a concept – were more comfortable with “R&D”  and were quicker to put other terms, such as “Science”, under it as an umbrella term.

Our May 2022 poll gauged people’s awareness of the term “R&D”, with 38% of 2m037 people saying that they had heard of the acronym “R&D” and knew what it meant. (These results are described in more detail in Knowledge of R&D.) It then gave an explanation of the activities R&D covers based on the Frascati definition and subsequently “Research & Development” was used throughout the survey. The final questions asked people how they felt about the use of the terms “Research & Development” and “R&D”.

Some 87% of 2,037 respondents felt that the term “Research & Development” was a very or somewhat clear way of talking about the survey topic, and only 10% felt it was unclear. There was little variation by demographic, although 18-24 year olds were slightly less likely to find the term clear (75%), while 92% of over 65s said they thought it was at least somewhat clear.  

We tested reactions to a range of alternative terms, including typical and less commonly used options, asking if they would be worse or better than “Research & Development”. Opinions were split, but “Innovation” performed strongest among these alternatives, with 39% saying it would be better or much better than “Research & Development”, and 19% saying it would be worse or much worse. “Investigation” performed least well, with 27% saying it would be better and 41% saying it would be worse.

Respondents were then asked if they felt these alternative terms meant the same thing as “Research & Development”. “Innovation” was seen as being most similar, with more than half of respondents saying it either meant exactly the same, or broadly the same. Younger people tended to be more in favour of any term than “Research & Development”, and to have a more liberal interpretation of the terms, which is perhaps because these groups were also less sure on what R&D meant initially.

We found that when “R&D” is used in context it was broadly supported as a term. When asked whether it made more sense for the Government to say “We are investing £22bn in Research & Development” or “We are investing £22bn in [alternative term]”, no term outperformed “R&D”, but again “Innovation” was received best among the alternatives, with around 20% favouring this term over “R&D”. Although younger groups were more likely to choose an alternative term over older counterparts, “R&D” was still the overwhelming favourite for this group.

Our July 2022 poll measured people’s unprompted reactions to terminology, before the survey itself created familiarity. As such, the terminology questions were asked at the start of the poll, before a definition of R&D had been provided.

The sample was split to test four terms: “New Discoveries”, “Innovation”, “Research & Development” and “Science”. We also tested the terminology options in more realistic contexts. These included a range of plausible phrases where the terms were interchanged and a hypothetical newspaper headline about investment in [the term] being doubled.

In contrast to the results in our May 2022 poll, where respondents were asked to make a binary choice between terms, in this poll – when the terms “Research & Development” and “Science” were tested separately, in split samples – they are broadly equivalent in terms of the levels of agreement or support they generated.

We found that “Research & Development” and “Science” generally performed strongest, while “New Discoveries” consistently performed worse than the other terms. Notably, the public were more likely to feel that “Science” had a positive impact on their lives, versus the other terms.

When asked to describe how they felt about the version of the newspaper headline they had seen, the most-chosen adjective for all terms was “innovative”. After this, the headlines using “Research & Development” or “Science” were more likely to be described as “valuable”, “smart” and “reassuring”, while the “New Discoveries” headline was more likely to be described as “risky”, “worrying” or “unnecessary”.

Again, we see differences between demographic groups when responding to these questions.

In the July 2022 poll, younger respondents were less likely to agree that “the UK should lead the world in [term]” across all the terms tested. When the terms were tested in the context of “doubling investment” in that area, “Science” produced the most consistent support across all age groups, while “R&D” performed similarly well across all groups, with a marked peak among over 65s. Younger people are, however, more likely than older groups to see investment framed around any of the tested terms as being risky.

Notably, there were clear differences between groups based on education level and socioeconomic group. People in group AB were far more supportive of all terms compared with group DE, with “New Discoveries” performing particularly poorly among the latter group. Those with postgraduate education were more likely to agree with, or support, the terms tested.

In our February 2023 polling, we provided a broad list of research activities and asked respondents to select (from a list) the terms they felt best described all of them as a group. These activities included designing new energy-efficient boilers that could cut energy bills; examining how parks can improve people’s health and wellbeing to inform better town planning; testing a new artificial intelligence programme that can predict where new flood defences should be built in response to climate change and studying DNA from people with a rare but serious disease in order to develop a treatment.

The most commonly chosen term was “Research and Development” (66%), followed by “Research” (57%), then “Innovation” and “Science and Technology”. At the other end of the scale were “STEM” (18%) and “Finding Out” (25%).

When asked to choose just one to encompass all the activities, respondents overwhelmingly favoured “Research and Development”, with it being selected by 39% of people. “Research” was second, at 10%. This mirrors our initial focus groups, where “R&D” or “Research and Development” were often seen as umbrella terms for a range of R&D activities.

Our October 2023 polling sought to explore the question of terminology further, with a focus on “Research & Development” and “Research & Innovation”. These two phrases were selected for further analysis based on a combination of factors:  

  • Performance in previous polling: Both “Innovation” and “Research & Development” gained the broadest support 
  • Potential to encompass a broad range of activities: Unlike “Science” – another effective term – both R&D and R&I can include different disciplines and sectors 
  • Existing use in the sector: Rather than seeking to develop a new phrase, R&D and R&I are already commonplace in both messaging and organisation names 

Overall, we found that “Research & Development” and “Research & Innovation” could be used relatively interchangeably in a range of contexts, without impacting attitudes to a degree above margin of error. These results suggest that there is openness to either term being used, and that the sector has the opportunity to choose one consistent term and frame its meaning and relevance to the public. Our terminology briefing paper provides more detailed recommendations for the sector. 

As with the February 2023 polling, we provided a set of examples of research activities and asked which terms (from a list) they felt best described them as a group. The most popular term was “Research & Development” (selected by 56%), followed by “Research & Innovation” (48%), “Science & Technology” (41%) and “Research” (35%). When asked to choose just one term, 35% selected “Research & Development” and 22% “Research & Innovation”. 

Testing attitudes to R&D or R&I

At this point, respondents were split into two, with one half seeing questions focused on “Research & Development” and the other half on “Research & Innovation”. These questions explored awareness of the terms, attitudes towards different statements that put the terms in context and attitudes to local research and research jobs.  

Awareness of terminology and actors  

We found greater awareness of the phrase “Research & Development”, with 65% saying they had heard the exact phrase before; this was lower for “Research & Innovation”, with 29% saying they had heard the exact phrase and 44% saying they had heard something like it. Slightly fewer respondents reported hearing about R&I during their education or in their workplace than those familiar with R&D. 

When asked a series of questions about actors involved in R&D or R&I, answers were very similar between groups. Universities were perceived by both groups as carrying out a great deal of R&D/R&I, followed by public bodies like the NHS and large businesses. When asked which actors would be best able to explain R&D or R&I, research institutes and universities were selected by more than 50% of respondents, regardless of which term was being considered. These results are discussed in more detail in Messengers

Attitudes towards the terms in the context of investment 

A majority would support doubling the UK Government’s R&D budget (71%) and R&I budget (66%), with the same words being most-selected to describe this proposal: valuable, smart and exciting. Similarly, most people think it is important to support R&D (87%) and R&I (85%), and just under a third say that the Government should invest more taxpayer money on R&D (28%) or R&I (29%). The majority of both sets of respondents felt the Government and businesses should invest more in R&D/I; that the UK should lead the world in R&D/I and that R&D/I had a positive impact on their lives.  

Awareness of and attitudes to local research and research jobs 

For both R&D and R&I samples, 30% of respondents said that they didn’t know how much of the activity was carried out in their area, while around two-thirds (67% and 64% respectively) said they would like to see more carried out in their local area. 

When framed around local jobs, we found that respondents (for both terms) tended to feel neutrally about which sector new jobs in their area were in, but supported new jobs in research being in their area over others. The biggest benefits to having local R&D or R&I were more jobs in the area, improvements to the local economy and having local people involved as participants. We found that similar proportions would support a proposal to build a new lab for carrying out the research activity on their local high street.  

Questions on attitudes to R&D or R&I jobs and skills showed that most people think these jobs are important and interesting and that around two-thirds of respondents (66% and 63% respectively) would be at least somewhat interested in a job in the industry. The majority of respondents also believe that R&D/R&I skills are important for children to learn at school.  

These results are discussed in more detail in Benefits of R&D

Which term is preferred? 

The final aspect of terminology explored in the October 2023 survey gave respondents direct comparisons. A plurality of respondents (43%) said that Research & Development and Research & Innovation were equally clear and work equally well in explaining what the practice of creating new ideas, products or inventions means. A third (33%) said R&D worked better, and 12% said R&I. 

For a set of different research activities, we asked whether it made more sense to talk about R&D, R&I, or if there was no difference. We generally found that R&D was selected more than R&I, apart from when referring to researchers working on AI, where 37% thought R&I would be more sensible compared with 30% who said R&D. Medical research shifted the other way, with over 40% choosing R&D for each of the three health or medical research activities, compared with less than 25% choosing R&I for each. Older audiences tend to be more likely to choose R&D than R&I, which could be because they are more aware than younger audiences of the phrase. 

When asked which term, “Research & Development” or “Research & Innovation” was preferred, R&D was selected by a majority (78%), and this was true across all demographics. When considering our segments (see Segmentation), we found that the Ideologically Conflicted – the group we have identified as being the least supportive of R&D in general – were the most likely to choose R&D (82%) over R&I (18%). 

We then asked respondents why they preferred one term over the other, and gave them space to explain in their own words. There was a sense that the two terms were very similar, and that it would be “confusing to start changing the phrase for what is essentially the same thing” or that asking the question represented “too much procrastination around pointless minor details”. 

We also again saw the familiarity effect of ‘Research and Development’, with respondents saying it was what they were used to, while others said it was “easier to understand”, “the most simple” or the “more certain”. Others expressed a sense that it was more clear or described a logical progression from research into development. 

In contrast, ‘research’ and ‘innovation’ were more likely to be seen as synonyms, and some people saw ‘research and innovation’ as “pompous”, a “buzzword” or “marketing speak”. Although fewer people preferred “Research and Innovation”, those who did described it as being “more fresh”, “modern”, “dynamic” or “upbeat”. 

Science Superpower branding

Key takeaways

  • The Government’s ‘Science Superpower’ brand has not cut through with the public
  • The choice of messenger influences the reception, but there is the potential for the phrase to feel unrealistic

Recent governments have frequently used the tagline “Science Superpower” to describe their ambitions to boost R&D in the UK. This brand may carry weight with political audiences, but our research suggests it has not cut through with the public.

The majority of respondents to our February 2023 polling (65% of 4,005 respondents) said they had never heard the phrase “Science Superpower” before. In contrast, just 12% had heard of it and knew what it meant, while a further 18% had heard of it but didn’t know what it meant.  We asked a similar question in our May 2022 polling, and just 8% said that they had definitely heard of the phrase, compared with 30% who definitely hadn’t.

Reactions to the phrase were mixed, with our May 2022 focus groups yielding more negative responses than in the polling. When asked to describe the phrase in their own words, focus group participants saw it as “childish”, “unrealistic” or being entirely the wrong focus during a cost-of-living crisis. When interpreting these results, it is worth noting that we tested the phrase with a link to Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister. See our section on Messengers for more discussion of the impact of different political and other voices.

In our May 2022 polling – when the “Science Superpower” tagline was attached to the wider Government, rather than an individual – respondents shifted towards positive terms with “ambitious” coming top, chosen by 44% of the 2,037 respondents. Of the negative terms offered to choose from, “unrealistic” ranked highest.

The new Department for Science, Innovation and technology has said it wants to use R&D to deliver “stronger growth, better jobs and bold new discoveries”. In our February 2023 polling, we used a split sample to gauge people’s support for boosting R&D investment in order to “encourage stronger growth, better jobs or bold new discoveries in Britain” or “make Britain a science superpower”. Respective total support for these statements was 77% and 65%.  

When asked what investment in R&D could achieve, only 38% said “making Britain a science superpower”, behind “stronger growth” (60%), “better jobs” (58%), “attracting businesses” (57%) and “bold new discoveries” (52%). 

Taglines and Slogans

Key takeaways

  • R&D’s core ‘brand’ should be clear and inspiring: Slogans framed around making a better future and creating tomorrow’s solutions performed well  
  • The best-performing slogans were “Invest today to save tomorrow” and “Because tomorrow should be better than today” 
  • The slogan least associated with positive terms was “Hello tomorrow”, which was considered “cheesy”, “unclear” and “uninformative” 

To develop successful campaigns, R&D advocates need to translate audience insights into eye-catching, memorable and emotive communications. Many parts of the R&D sector are already expert in this – for instance, medical research charities effectively balance personal stories, hope and realism to motivate donors. However, as discussed in the previous section on the ‘Science Superpower’ tagline, not all taglines resonate with the public. 

Successful campaigns rely on short, snappy wording to convey their key message, and this section will use the term ‘slogan’ to describe the style of statements used in our testing. For this part of the survey, we developed 18 slogans based on three successful framings identified in audience research carried out in May and July 2022: problem-solving, personal benefit and improving things for the future or future generations. 

For each slogan, we asked how people felt about it, whether they found it a convincing argument, and why. The slogans are shown below:

We first asked respondents to select words to describe each slogan, with a range of positive and negative terms provided.

The slogans most associated with positive terms were “Invest today to save tomorrow” and “Because tomorrow should be better than today”. Both were seen as being “clear” – the latter was marginally less so, but more likely to be seen as a clear slogan among younger groups. The second most associated term was “interesting” for the former and “inspiring” for the latter. 

These two slogans were also considered the most convincing by respondents. “Because tomorrow should be better than today” was the most convincing across age and socioeconomic groups, and crucially for those aged under 35 and in group DE – these are groups we identified in our wider research as being less instinctively connected to R&D. The slogan also appeared to resonate particularly well among women – another group our research suggests is less connected to R&D – and ranked considerably higher than the second-place option; for men, the two were tied. Messages focused on the concepts of ‘saving tomorrow’ and the idea ‘we can’t afford to stay still’ performed notably better with over 65s. 

To understand what they felt each slogan was conveying, we explored the rationale behind people’s preferences. Among those who felt “Because tomorrow should be better than today” was convincing, 50% said this was because it made them think, followed by it demonstrating the importance of R&D (46%), and that it captured their attention (44%).

The worst-performing slogans were “Hello tomorrow” and “What’s next”, with the former considered “cheesy”, “unclear” and “uninformative”; and the latter labelled “unclear”, “uninformative” but “interesting”. Across all slogans tested, the biggest consistent risk was being unclear – for seven of the 18 slogans, “unclear” was among the three most associated words, peaking for “tomorrow starts with a question” which 25% of people found unclear.  

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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