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Advocacy for R&D must be rooted in everyday realities

The public values practical benefits above science superpower status, say Ben Bleasdale and Daniel Rathbone

Across the country, people are seeing an increase in the cost of living, as memories of the UK’s vaccine triumph fade. Against this backdrop, those calling for greater investment in R&D risk looking out of touch with reality and their sector becoming a target for cuts rather than commitments.

Unless we land our message with due sensitivity, grand ambitions for R&D will come up against an increasingly simple question—what’s the point? At the Campaign for Science and Engineering, we heard this first-hand back in May during our public focus groups in Manchester.

One 42-year-old pharmacy dispenser said: “We’ve been doing scientific research for ages and it’s not helped.” 

And a 60-year-old mechanical engineer complained: “It would be nice to see some returns, some evidence that the investments we’re putting in have created something…At the end of the day, it’s our money.”

These focus groups were part of our Discovery Decade initiative. Supported by a three-year grant from the Wellcome Trust, this project aims to help R&D organisations craft a compelling vision for the future, and get this in front of the public and politicians. 

In recent months, we have polled 10,000 people nationwide to gauge the breadth and depth of support for public investment in R&D. We’ve tested different terminology, messages and framings, and begun mapping where and how research and innovation connect with different sections of the public. Once complete, we’ll publish this dataset as an open-access online resource.

These data can inform a more inclusive vision for R&D in society, connecting with a broader range of people to explain how public investment is used and what it delivers. To survive as a political priority, such investments need enduring voter appeal. 

Building relationships

That creates a responsibility to explain the point of R&D. The sector is well armed with statistics and models showing how it powers prosperity. But return-on-investment figures won’t fire the public’s imagination. We must show how those numbers make everyday life better and show how R&D puts money in people’s pockets. Doing so will help us build relationships with supporters who want to back R&D as a political choice. 

Conversations about this vision have already begun—recent months have seen former Tory leader William Hague call for the UK to seize R&D as a “national mission” and former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s Future of Britain initiative place technology at the heart of its thinking. 

But unless the R&D sector owns the conversation and moves it forward, the government’s nebulous ‘science superpower’ brand will continue to dominate. And we know this isn’t reaching or resonating with large swathes of the public. 

Our conversations around the country strongly suggest that talking about the benefits and opportunities that stem from R&D, both immediate and long term, carries far greater weight than abstract, status-led rationales. Focus groups have shown that people’s day-to-day struggles can make such abstract ambitions seem at best irrelevant and at worst heartless.  

Another focus group participant, a 24-year-old accountant, said: “It makes me sad to think [Boris Johnson] is boasting about this [science superpower goal]…when there’s children going hungry.”

As we begin publishing these findings in the coming months, we want R&D advocates across the sector to work with us on a clear, compelling argument for why our work remains an important political and social choice for the UK. 

Former science minister George Freeman recently urged the R&D sector to redouble its efforts to make the case for public investment to the new government. By now, colleagues across the sector are only too familiar with having to engage another crop of ministers, but we must not let this familiarity mask the new context in which we’re stating our case. 

We must listen to the public and engage with its criticisms and concerns. This will mean shifting our advocacy to be more data-led, more consistent and more responsive to our audiences.  

Amid choppy political seas, the R&D community needs to chart its own course. We must build our own non-partisan vision that answers that fundamental question—what’s the point? For most readers here, an answer will jump to mind, but we must be led by what matters to those we’re trying to reach, not what convinces us.  

If we can’t articulate a compelling case to the public then funding will be redirected to other worthy causes and this moment of opportunity for R&D will be gone. Perhaps for a generation. 

Ben Bleasdale is director of the Discovery Decade project and Daniel Rathbone is assistant director at the Campaign for Science and Engineering  

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight