To secure investment, science must tell its story better

A new report from Demos reveals how the public talk about research online – and why the research community’s advocacy needs to catch up.

People on a demo in America holding placards supporting science
A photograph of the author, Ben Bleasdale.

Ben Bleasdale

Science has been thrust into the political limelight. Previously seen as feel-good padding for political speeches, transformational science investment targets now appear in manifestos and get top-billing in stump speeches. Not since Harold Wilson delivered his ‘white heat’ speech in 1963 has science been lauded as such a prominent national priority.  

But the one constant in politics is transience. Our current political audience will eventually shift their gaze, so the science community must use this moment on centre-stage to tell our story. We must clearly and confidently describe how greater investment could shape the UK’s identity and future. 

In making the case for science, we have often focused on its economic impact. This helped protect investment during the economic downturn but can’t do justice to the current scale of opportunities – we need to talk about why science is vital in a more personal way.

We've commissioned an independent report from Demos which makes it clear that we must start by changing our language. Science is eliciting many strong and positive emotions, yet we often fail to connect with these as advocates. We need to focus more on people and their stories when explaining the impact of science and embrace links to popular culture. We may be talking about serious money, but today’s findings suggest we need to be more playful in our conversations.

Building on this report, Wellcome and the Campaign for Science and Engineering want to work with the whole community to rethink how we talk about science investment. Our next step will be to identify where the community has been effective in the past and share ideas for doing things differently in the future. It will mean going outside familiar territory and learning lessons from other sectors. We need to craft a relatable and compelling vision for new investment and empower fresh voices to share it. 

On a stage crowded with well-known characters in British politics – from the NHS, to schools, and even potholes – we need to help science express its identity and capture hearts, as well as minds.

Seven key findings from the report

  • When reading about science, people respond well to person-centred stories and relate to the idea of exceptional and admirable individuals as the driving force of science.
  • People want to engage with science which feels personally relevant to them or things they are familiar with, such as characters and concepts from popular culture.
  • Even on serious topics, the evidence suggests that people want to have fun in their engagement with science content.
  • Analogies are frequently used to engage people with complex research, as most are not familiar with technical language and won’t try to decipher it.
  • People are invested in developments which are ground-breaking, completely new, cutting-edge, particularly relating to exploration or innovation.
  • But people are also cynical and sceptical about the applications of new science and the motivations behind it, and value clarity and transparency.
  • People discussing science very rarely mention who funded it, and narratives were more often shaped by researchers and publishing organisations. The minority of tweets specifically mentioning funding usually come from within the science community itself.