The future is a scary place – people need to see how R&D can help

New and extensive polling data from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in the best tradition of the social sciences confirms what we feel in our boots to be true - that while “the public” sees the abstract value in science and research, many people struggle to see the relevance of R&D to their everyday lives. As a consequence, there’s not (yet) a political head of steam behind the idea of R&D investment as a government priority.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

CaSE has secured funding from the Wellcome Trust to commission Public First to undertake the polling, which explores public attitudes to R&D in intensive detail. There were four large-scale nationally representative polls carried out in May and July 2022 (the July poll is the largest, with over 8,000 respondents), and February 2023, as well as focus groups carried out during the second half of 2022. The advantage of a rolling methodology like this one is that questions can be refined in light of findings from the last poll – it’s an expensive, but very effective, way to get to the bottom of an issue.

So rather than simply confirming what we know without explaining it, the data is rich with potential angles and ways into understanding why people feel the way they do and the demographic nuances within the broad public view. The data – which is publicly available on CaSE’s website – will therefore be an essential resource for anyone seeking to create a public campaign on the benefits of R&D in general or any particular scientific agenda.

Themes of the May-July 2022 polling are:

  • What people understand by the terminology of R&D, what it is, and how it happens, and their level of personal interest in it
  • Public support for funding R&D, perceptions of the strength of different arguments that make the case for more funding, and the interrelationship between R&D funding and other priorities such as healthcare improvements, climate change, or defence
  • Who is perceived be a trusted messenger on the importance and value of R&D, and who is less trusted

The more recent polling, undertaken in February this year, gives a lighter-touch snapshot of general sentiments on R&D, including a deep dive into people’s views on whether R&D can help solve larger social problems like rising cost of living.

Support, with caveats

In broad strokes, the polling has lots of encouraging findings. There’s generally a pretty positive response to the idea of science, innovation, new discoveries, and creative solutions to problems. But terminology matters. In the July 2022 poll, for example, respondents were randomly assigned the same questions using different terms: research and development, science, new discoveries, and innovation.

When asked whether they agreed that the UK should lead the world in “X” or whether “X” had a positive impact on their life, respondents were most likely to respond positively when prompted with “science” and less likely when prompted with “new discoveries”. When asked whether they agreed that the UK should be investing more in “X”, 65 per cent agreed for research and development, 64 per cent for science, 61 per cent for innovation, and 55 per cent for “new discoveries” – and all of this will vary by age, social class, gender, and education.

A lot of this is impressionistic. 38 per cent of respondents to the July 22 poll said they had not heard the phrase “research and development”, and 57 per cent said they do not know very much, or nothing at all, about R&D. Though 64 per cent disagree they don’t know much about what a researcher does, suggesting that while the act of research at an individual level seems conceivable, the broader research and innovation ecosystem isn’t very tangible or well understood.

Notably, the term “science superpower” has very low salience, with only eight per cent of respondents to the May 22 poll saying they had heard the term. By February 23 12 per cent were prepared to say they had heard the term and know what it means, and a further 18 per cent had heard the term but don’t know what it means. There’s only lukewarm support for the abstract idea of the UK being a global leader in R&D, with 51 per cent in the July 22 poll agreeing it should, and a further 33 per cent neutral on the idea.

There’s also a degree of suspicion – 59 per cent said that R&D benefits some more than others (and of these 51 per cent cited big business, and 44 per cent “wealthy people”). Only 22 per cent associate R&D with their local area; far more assume it’s something that happens elsewhere. 24 per cent disagree – and more worryingly, 31 per cent are neutral – that R&D should be funded by the taxpayer.

Early conclusions

Universities need to be thinking about how to make the case for the value of research. Around half of respondents to the July 22 poll agree that research charities, universities and researchers themselves can be trusted to tell the truth about how much money the government should invest in R&D compared to 29 per cent for business and only 19 per cent for business. 71 per cent say they are interested in knowing about the results of new research.

How best to make the case? There’s masses in there about the relationship between R&D and other social issues, including cost of living, the NHS, climate change, education, mental health, and housing. In broad terms, R&D doesn’t stack up well when presented as being in competition with these other public priorities but when it’s presented as being part of the solution to making progress on those issues, it commands more support. Though respondents have different levels of confidence in the power of R&D to make a difference depending on the specific issue.

CaSE suggests that for many people, the world feels scary right now – the July 22 poll found 63 per cent tilting this way on a four point scale from “exciting” to “scary”. But the February polling finds that on balance people would prefer the UK to be looking for creative solutions (70 per cent tilting this way on a four-point scale) and are split on the idea that there are too many problems now to be worrying about the future. There is receptiveness to a more personalised message about the potential for R&D to improve things.

CaSE concludes that the task is to “nurture a more personal connection with R&D”. Where university research and researchers can engage tangibly with real-world challenges that affect people’s lives and communities, support for research will deepen.

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