Financial pressures ‘erode public support for research spending’

Sector must show tangible benefits of funding or public will prioritise other things, poll finds

February 28, 2023
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Support in the UK for public spending on research and development is “fragile” and it could be seen as a “luxury” in challenging financial times, according to new polling.

While politicians have kept funding pledges for the sector so far, this may not last, warned the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), which found more than a third of people can think of very few or no ways investment in R&D improves their lives.

While the public remained broadly supportive of R&D, many viewed it as something that could be cut when the going gets tough. Almost half of those polled said more investment should wait until the economy was in better shape.

Rachel Wolf, founding partner of Public First, who carried out the study, said public support “won’t survive tough times and other priorities” without “tangible detail”.

“There will need to be a lot of targeted work to maintain and increase public interest through the next decade,” she said.

Those taking part in the survey were asked about a hypothetical government proposal that would immediately halve the R&D budget. This was supported by a third of respondents straight away, with the proportion rising to a majority (52 per cent) when the cut was framed in a way that it would free up money for hiring nurses or lowering energy bills.

Such tentative public support could be countered by tying the benefits of R&D to local development, the polling suggests.

More than 70 per cent of people in London, north-east England and Northern Ireland felt it was at least somewhat important for their region to carry out a lot of R&D.

Of these respondents, 71 per cent said they were motivated by the local jobs that R&D could generate, followed by the investment it would bring to their area (64 per cent) and benefits to the UK as a whole (53 per cent).

Sarah Main, the executive director of CaSe, said the findings challenged the sector “to build a more far-reaching and compelling narrative for R&D”.

The findings will be used to inform a project that seeks to build a broad and lasting base of support for research funding over the next year.


Print headline: In tough times, public support for R&D ‘fragile’

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Reader's comments (1)

I am not surprised that public support for more R & D, particularly what is done in universities, is decreasing. There is little evidence about what has worked and what has failed to work and was a waste of money. The way funding is allocated is flawed. Allowing the number of "citations" to add merit to applications from individuals and organisations is ridiculous. We need proof of return on investment. We should focus on outputs and outcomes, not inputs. Spending more money on R & D does not prove society has benefited from the investment anymore than weighing a cow proves it has grown heavier. Too much new research is simply repeating what we already know. It adds nothing. Too much research is done in silos and seeks to provide answers to what is not worth knowing. The focus is often too narrow and of limited interest, particularly that done in the economic and social research and humanities sections. Cutting R & D by 50% and spending the money on other priorities such as house building, more doctors, nurses and teachers would provide a far better return for society.