We sit down with Andy Hawkes from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) to discuss the organisation’s landmark study of public attitudes to research and development (R&D) in the UK.
Andy’s role sits at the centre of policy, engagement, and advocacy at CaSE, the UK’s leading independent advocate for science and engineering. The charity represents over 115 scientific organisations, including GSK, The Alan Turing Institute, and King’s College London, as well as individual scientists and engineers.
CaSE conducted a major study of public opinion on R&D over the past 18 months, drawing insights from four nationally representative polls covering a total of 18,000 people, and 14 focus groups across the UK.
Why did CaSE conduct this research?
The UK makes a disproportionate contribution to worldwide scientific research. Despite this, levels of Government investment still lag behind other major economies and serious questions are being raised about whether there is the right support in place to grow science-based industries. It’s vital that the sector is backed by the public to build a broad and lasting base of support for research funding.
We surveyed over 18,000 people across the UK on their attitudes towards R&D as part of CaSE’s Discovery Decade programme. The project, developed from widespread consultation with the R&D sector with funding from the Wellcome Trust, is focused on identifying ways to advocate for R&D and articulate a compelling vision for science in the UK.
We explored people’s attitudes towards the full range of R&D – from the humanities through to STEM subjects. And we sought opinions on all types of organisations involved in R&D, from public institutions such as universities through to companies working for profit. So, we’ve got a window on how people from all walks of life feel about R&D today.
Can you tell us about the key findings?
First and foremost, the research highlighted there is a solid baseline of support for R&D in this country, which is a great starting point. Our polling found that 70% of people said it was important for the Government to invest in R&D and 73% think the UK needs to be better at science and innovation.
However, that support is also fragile. When presented with a hypothetical Government proposal to immediately cut the R&D budget, we found that nearly half (46%) would invest more in R&D only when “the economy is in better shape”. Additionally, there’s a gap in understanding of what R&D is and how it benefits people’s lives – 61% of the UK general public either agreed that ‘R&D doesn’t benefit people like me’ or were neutral or unsure of the impacts.
So, there is clearly a lot more work to be done to communicate science to the public in a meaningful way. Fortunately, the research also gave us valuable insights into how science communicators and advocates can respond. People see R&D’s potential to solve issues in society, such as tackling climate change or improving healthcare, but this can be strengthened by cultivating R&D’s local roots and making the benefits of science more relatable to day-to-day life.
What does the research show us about attitudes towards R&D in the private sector?
People recognise the significant role the private sector plays in UK R&D. In our focus groups, businesses were front-of mind when we asked who both funds and conducts R&D. People also tended to gravitate towards industry-led examples, such as new technology or healthcare, when asked to describe what R&D is.
The caution here is that many people also expressed concerns that innovation makes everyday life more expensive, and the benefits are unaffordable to many people. “Each new phone or car costs more than the last”, one person said.
We also found that businesses have a role to play in cultivating R&D’s local roots. People really care about the impact research can have on their local area, whether that’s through creating jobs, furthering education, or supporting the local economy. Around three quarters of people said it was at least somewhat important for R&D to be conducted in their region, and many associate it with nearby universities, businesses, or NHS institutions. Despite this, visibility of local research is low – about two thirds of people say they would like to hear more about research in their area.
Despite some people expressing concerns about bias, there was a generally positive attitude towards businesses that were seen to have expertise in R&D. Critically, many people felt that R&D was no better or worse when funded by private companies than academia or charities. In fact, they often see private sector involvement as a faster route to delivering results.
How can communicators ensure that science resonates with people?
After seeing academics and researchers from universities in action during the coronavirus pandemic, many people hold them in high regard and consider them well-placed to speak about R&D. Over half of people polled said they trusted researchers to be honest about how much money the Government should invest in R&D. But there’s less appreciation of how much research is conducted at universities – few people in our focus groups cited universities as a place where R&D happens unprompted. Industry, however, is viewed as producing tangible applications of its research. There’s a clear opportunity here to engage the public with trusted spokespeople and clear examples of the positive impact of science on people’s lives by leveraging the partnership between academia and industry.
As a sector we need to show honest, achievable optimism. Depictions of R&D that are vague or unrealistically grand were quickly dismissed by our focus groups. Instead, people want to feel that science has a bearing on their lives, whether that’s in their local area or addressing the issues that matter to them. The cost of living, quality of the NHS, and climate change were viewed as the most pressing issues, but this isn’t an exclusive list. We found that generally people wanted to feel that R&D is helping to leave the world in better shape for future generations.
The data, summaries, and reports compiled by CaSE for the Discovery Decade project can be found here.