Face-to-face market research in the UK could all but disappear unless government acts swiftly and decisively to allow the return of this vital form of data collection and research.

With 90% of face-to-face activities on hold, the threat to a mainstay of the UK research industry is one of the key findings of a comprehensive survey of its members by the professional association for the research sector, the MRS, in collaboration with Watermelon Research.

The new MRS report shows that 87% of social and market research businesses surveyed have seen a negative impact on their business since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Most businesses anticipate a revenue decline of more than 25% and nearly a third predict a drop of 75%. Based on a complete loss of revenue, 40% of those companies could go out of business, doing long-term damage to a sector worth £5bn to the UK economy.

SMEs, which make up 92% of the sector, are most at risk. It is particularly worrying for the 49% micro businesses (those employing under nine people) which are facing cash flow, rental and other financial concerns. It places the UK’s world leading status in jeopardy and will affect over £1.5bn of revenues the sector currently generates from overseas business.

According to MRS CEO, Jane Frost CBE: “While research uses an impressive range of techniques from neuroscience and ethnography to behavioural science to deliver insight, a significant part of the sector depends on face-to-face research carried out by skilled and experienced professionals.

“However, much like retail and hospitality, this vital part of research was closed down almost instantly when COVID-19 hit, with commissions falling away even before the start of lockdown. It is now at a complete standstill apart from a small amount of largely government work. Many businesses saw their business dry up overnight and are still paying business rates on premises they can’t use, but it is the uncertainty of not knowing when or how their ability to work might return that could see their demise.

“Every day the news is full of stories based on research of some kind, whether it be confidence in the use of public transport, attitudes to climate change in the crisis or reactions to government policies. Evidence-based research will be crucial in the post COVID-19 world to guide business navigating its way through the economic crisis caused the pandemic. But it will also essential for governments trying to understand the impact on our society as they seek to develop the right policies in a whole raft of areas from the NHS and wellbeing to the environment, infrastructure and education.”

Other key findings from the research include:

  • 45% of those surveyed had never heard of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme or knew very little about it
  • The crisis has disproportionately affected young people, and they account for 69% of those who have been furloughed in the sector

The sector is not expecting things to return to normal soon, and only four in six companies are optimistic about business performance in 12 months.

Post-lockdown COVID-19 research guidance

MRS has also today published a new set of guidelines for returning to work including for face-to-face activity. The guidelines build on the government’s safe working guidance and set out the measures research practitioners will need to take in order to ensure the safety of their own staff, and those members of the public with whom face-to-face interaction is essential.

However, there are still some key areas where, in order to restore the safe resumption of face-to-face research, MRS is calling on government to provide much greater clarity.

These include:

  • Guidance on movement e.g. use of public transport
  • Clarity on over 70s – both researchers and participants

The new report which gathered data from over 176 MRS member businesses also highlighted a resilience and resolve in the sector and although there is widespread support for the furlough scheme, the sector is being crippled by uncertainty over the future and is in desperate need of clear government guidance.

MRS is the oldest research association in the world, founded by the early pre-war pioneers who went on to support the war-time government with research into the application of rationing and other key home-front policies. On behalf of its members, it is asking for some very simple extensions of the government’s existing policies to support research businesses through this period.

See the MRS Post-Covid-19 Lockdown Guidance:'Undertaking safe face to face data collection'

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