Just what the doctor ordered: dissecting public attitudes towards science and medical research charities

Science apparatus

Just what the doctor ordered: dissecting public attitudes towards science and medical research charities

How many times have you heard the phrase 'follow the science' recently? Our blog this week looks at how public attitudes towards science and scientists could affect the work of health/medical research charities.
Secil Muderrisoglu


Covid-19 is having a huge impact on the charity sector, and charities continue to be affected in many different ways. Medical research charities are rightly worried about the immediate and long-term impacts of Covid-19 on their fundraised income, which could result in fewer vital research programmes and clinical trials.

Another concern for medical research charities is the potential change in public attitudes towards science. ‘Follow the science’ has become the one of the Government’s phrases during this pandemic, but of course science doesn’t give one set answer to how society should respond to a virus. A set of studies looking at the UK public’s attitudes to science, scientists and science policy was published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy back in July 2019 – which was concluded before the Covid-19 outbreak.

The report states that before the pandemic, public trust in scientists was high: 9 out of 10 people said that they believe scientists make a valuable contribution to the society. However, the report also underlined continued inequality when it comes to distribution of ‘Science Capital’ (the sum of all the science-related knowledge), as it is significantly skewed towards degree educated men. In our next wave of Charity Awareness Monitor research with the public, we will be looking at how public opinion of science has changed since the outbreak of coronavirus, and what the impact might be on medical research charities.

From a brand perspective, medical research charities have a fundamentally strong public profile. The public like medical research and the idea that future generations won’t suffer the way that the current generation has, because of research.  As with all inspirational brands, the best medical research brands direct their entire strategy to make research, evidence and knowledge underpin what they do: from their style of communications all the way to their information services. Many of the medical research charities hold strong long-term strategic perspectives driven, not surprisingly, by what their organisation stands for. With brand metrics like those, medical research charities are well prepared to bounce back once we overcome the problems that Covid-19 has inflicted on us all.

Looking at our recent Charity Awareness Monitor data, we see that there are always at least two medical research charities, including cancer, in our top five spontaneous awareness charity list; this is a list compiled of the top of mind charities members of the public name without any prompts or suggestions. When it comes to the public’s knowledge about certain areas of work, medical research is one of the most popular, with only 4 out of 10 saying they cannot name a charity working in this sector.

While this may sound like a high number of ‘don’t’ knows’, it is in fact an achievement in comparison to some other areas, such as disability, where this figure goes up to nearly 8 out of 10 of the public being unable to name a charity working in this sector. Looking at our prompted awareness trend charts, we see that medical research charities that we prompt have kept their awareness intact while many other big brands have seen a gradual fall over the last decade.

Our Charity Brand Evaluator is a research tool through which we track several mid to large size charity brands and dissect them to find out about their brand personality, brand values, and drivers of success. Looking at the results of a well-known medical research charity brand and accepting it as a ‘proxy’ for the sake of this argument, we can deduce that research charities have all the potential to excel when it comes to brand metrics we use, such as momentum, relevance and preference. Our medical research ‘proxy’ charity brand scores highly on the Momentum Index (‘this charity is moving in the right direction’, this charity is a dynamic/energetic organisation’) – Top 3. It is also the second most preferred brand within the benchmark, which is the ultimate ‘love’ score of the Charity Brand Evaluator. As I said earlier, medical research charities have many attributes that the public really like.

The strength of medical research charity brands suggest they are in a very strong position to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, public and donor perceptions of science and research will have developed since the start of the pandemic, and medical research charities will need to be plugged into how these shifts could alter public perception of their effectiveness. Medical research charities are a group of more resilient charities in our data, since medical research is so popular in the public mind. Indeed, since ‘research’ is a public winner, perhaps other charities might want to emphasise the ‘research’ aspects of their work, no matter what field they work in.

Do you have anything you would like to contribute to our research on how public opinion of science has changed since the outbreak of coronavirus? Please get in touch at CAM@nfpsynergy.net if so!


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