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The public values R&D—now make it matter to politicians

Image: Campaign for Science and Engineering


Polling shows that voters want an MP who will champion research, says Ben Bleasdale

In just over five short weeks, the excitement of electioneering will give way to the realities of governing the country. 

Regardless of which party wins a mandate from voters, the next government will find itself facing the same set of tough choices, while also grappling with tight public finances, struggling public services and the lingering damage of high inflation.

Research and innovation face an uphill struggle to be heard among a long list of other worthy and higher-profile political priorities. There is a severe risk that our sector’s policy calls will be overlooked.

Fresh faces

With more than 120 MPs standing down, not to mention seats that change hands, the next parliament will be full of fresh faces. 

If advocates for R&D want their priorities to stand out in crowded inboxes, they will need to make them matter to as many of this new cohort of MPs as possible—it can’t just be the preserve of the members for Cambridge and Oxford East.

R&D organisations must use the weeks running up to the election wisely and engage with prospective parliamentary candidates now. We need to demonstrate to them the opportunities that research and innovation present for their constituents and for their own political platforms. 

Public opinion

This will be no easy task. Public opinion research by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) has shown that the people, processes and places linked to R&D are opaque to many across the UK. 

More than half of the public say they know “nothing” or “not very much” on the topic, with little awareness of research beyond consumer technology and medical research.

But Case’s research also shows that R&D can matter to more people if messages focus on how it is solving real problems, helping the next generation and benefiting local areas. 

The last of these represents a huge untapped connection point: two-thirds of the public don’t feel well informed about the R&D happening in their area, and a similar proportion would like to hear more. 

That gap is a massive opportunity for those who are willing to get out there and make research and innovation feel more human and more local to voters.

Advocating for R&D is also an opportunity for candidates: our recent public opinion research shows a strong appetite for an MP who supports R&D activities both locally and nationally. 

Our polling from last month showed that 70 per cent of respondents would support their MP campaigning for more R&D jobs in their area, and there was strong support for attracting new local facilities. 

People also want to see their MP championing R&D as a national priority: 63 per cent of those polled said they would like to vote for someone who will support R&D in the UK, and 70 per cent support their MP voting in parliament for decisions that support R&D in the UK.  

Advocates for research and innovation must use this window of opportunity and work urgently to get R&D onto the radar of prospective parliamentary candidates, many of whom may currently have little knowledge of, or interest in, our sector’s work. 

Driving up enthusiasm

In the coming weeks, Case will release constituency-by-constituency analyses laying out the scale of voter appetite for action on research and innovation. We will share these figures with every prospective parliamentary candidate across the UK, alongside our evidence-led guide for engaging on the doorstep. 

We hope this can nurture broader interest in research and innovation among potential MPs and show the political opportunity that it can present for them and their constituents during the next parliament.

This is what Case will be doing during the election campaign, but we need the whole sector to join our efforts to drive up enthusiasm among prospective parliamentary candidates. 

We are producing statistics and engagement guides that anyone can use in their own efforts to engage parties, candidates and the public. We want to see R&D organisations large and small combine these with their own priorities and stories to show R&D’s role and impact in constituencies nationwide.

From today, we need to start building the political relationships that will stretch across the next parliament and beyond. Success will mean we wake up on Friday 5 July to a new cohort of MPs in which more than just the usual suspects view R&D as a priority for their constituents and for the country. 

Ben Bleasdale is the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s work on public attitudes to R&D

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight