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NIHR survey reveals public's attitudes to health research following coronavirus

Published: 20 May 2021

A significant disconnect exists between people’s perceptions of the importance of coronavirus research, and their understanding of where it happened and who took part, a survey commissioned by the NIHR to mark International Clinical Trials Day has revealed.

The YouGov survey, published today, asked 2,023 respondents a range of questions on their understanding of coronavirus research - especially research in the UK - and the role it has played in tackling the pandemic.

Public perception

The survey showed that the vast majority of  UK adults think health research has played a very (71%) or fairly (19%) important role in the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps in recognition of this, 29% said they trust health research more now than before the pandemic began, and just over a quarter (27%) said they were now more likely to take part in health research.  

Positively, the survey also found that:

  • 86% of people agree that the UK has played a leading role in the scientific response to coronavirus, with two-thirds (65%) saying they would be confident (scoring 7+ on a scale of 0 to 10) taking part in NHS-funded or public sector research;

  • 87% expressed pride in those UK researchers and NHS staff who identified coronavirus treatments and vaccines, and 91% think we should be grateful to people participating in coronavirus research.

Despite these very positive views, the survey suggests that people’s perceptions of how that success was achieved did not reflect the scale of effort that has been put in by healthcare professionals and participants alike.

For example, when asked how many UK participants there have been in coronavirus studies, only 8% knew it was over one million, with 23% estimating the significantly lower total of between 100 and 200 thousand. In fact, there have been 1,170,149 participants across 192 NIHR-delivered coronavirus research studies conducted within the NHS. 

Similarly, when asked whether health research should be offered as part of NHS routine care, 78% thought it should. Yet though every single UK public hospital has been involved in conducting some form of coronavirus research since the pandemic began, only 12% of respondents were aware that their local hospital offered opportunities to get involved, with 64% not knowing and 24% believing it did not. The same disconnect appeared in relation to people’s understanding of non-coronavirus research, with only 13% aware that opportunities to take part in research existed in every UK hospital (with 73% unaware and 14% believing it was not). 

William van’t Hoff, Chief Executive of the NIHR’s Clinical Research Network said:

“We are all used to seeing laboratory research in the news, with world-leading medical scientists developing new treatments such as vaccines. But all of these require research in people and patients, and the pandemic has clearly shown that great research needs hundreds of thousands of people to participate through their local hospital or in their local community.

“There are so many opportunities for people to find research themselves. Just search online for ‘be part of research’, or ask your GP or local hospital for details about the research taking place in your area, whether coronavirus related or not, and find out how you can get involved. 

“Your participation might just lead to the next life-changing breakthrough and even if it doesn’t do that, simply taking part in research can help improve the care at your hospital.”

Generational gap

The survey also shows that there are significant generational differences in attitude to coronavirus research across a range of issues, with an incrementally more positive view of research moving up through the age groups.

For example, there is a significant difference between young and old when it comes to the assessment of how important health research has been in overcoming the coronavirus. While 80% of those aged 55+ said it was very important, that dropped to 56% for those aged 18-24. Similarly, for those aged 24-35, only 58% thought health research was very important. 

When asked about the UK’s contribution to the development of treatments, tests and vaccines to combat the Coronavirus, a two-thirds majority of those aged 55+ (65%) positively acknowledged the UK’s role, compared with just 29% for those aged 18-24. Again, approval ratings rose incrementally at each age group asked. 

Most starkly, the strength of pride felt by respondents in the researchers and NHS staff who delivered coronavirus research was very diverse, with the oldest age group (55+) nearly twice as likely to feel proud as the youngest (18-24 years) (71% and 38%, respectively). 

Similar differences were revealed when people were asked to describe the sense of gratitude people felt to members of the public who had taken part in coronavirus research, with 57% of the youngest age group (18-24 years) feeling a strong sense of gratitude compared to 75% of those aged 55+. 

Professor Andrew Ustianowksi, national clinical lead for the NIHR COVID Vaccine Research Programme, said: 

“If the coronavirus has shown us anything it’s that we can all be affected by it, regardless of where we live, what we do, or how old we are. And that the quickest route to discovering vaccines, treatments and tests for any disease is through health research.

“Though it is understandable in some ways that older people feel the value of coronavirus research more keenly - perhaps reflecting their direct experience of treatments and vaccines, and the higher risks of contracting coronavirus they face - if we are to find preventions and cures in the future, for coronavirus or anything else, it’s crucial that people of all ages get involved.”

Attitudes to pharmaceutical research

The survey also offers some indication that people’s attitudes towards pharmaceutical companies may have begun to change as a result of the pandemic. 

While three in ten respondents interviewed (31%) expressed confidence (scoring 7+ on a scale 0 to 10)  in taking part in health research funded by pharmaceutical companies, nearly a fifth (18%) said they have more confidence than before as a result of vaccine delivery by companies such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer.


To mark International Clinical Trials Day on 20 May 2021, for one month between Monday 17 May - Thursday 17 June 2021 the NIHR and Devolved Administrations are campaigning to encourage as many people as possible to keep up the momentum  and take part in studies in other areas, to help power the health breakthroughs of the future. Find out more about the Be Part of Research campaign and how you can take part in studies.

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