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Nationwide survey reveals picture of UK’s attitudes to science and medicine

17 May 2013

Wellcome Trust Monitor, an independent survey of 1396 adults and 460 young people (aged 14-18 years) has revealed the most accurate picture to date of what the UK thinks about science, biomedical research and science education.

The survey, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and carried out by Ipsos MORI, explores everything from people's understanding of biomedical research to their views on personal responsibility for obesity and their concerns over vaccinations. It also gives the first accurate measure of how widespread the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs is among the general public. It is the second phase of a survey originally undertaken in 2009.

Young people believe that children have the right to be vaccinated
Although the majority of adults and young people (79 per cent and 70 per cent) regard vaccinations as safe, believing there to be little - if any - risk of serious side-effects, more than one in ten adults (15 per cent) and one-quarter of young people (23 per cent) believe that vaccinations carry a fairly or very high risk of serious side-effects.

As part of the Monitor, participants were asked several general knowledge science questions, and the survey found a strong correlation between a low score in the 'quiz' and a fear of vaccinations: whereas only 4 per cent of adults who scored highly on the quiz thought the risk of serious side-effects was high, this rose to 22 per cent of adults among those who scored low.

On the question of responsibility, the overwhelming majority of people - 91 per cent of adults and 89 per cent of young people - believed that individuals have a personal responsibility to get the recommended vaccinations for themselves or their children to help stop the spread of disease.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that more young people than adults (80 per cent compared with 69 per cent) believe that children have the right to be vaccinated against serious disease, which overrides their parents' preference.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, says: "The recent outbreak of measles in Wales, fuelled by lingering (but misplaced) fears over the MMR vaccine, demonstrates how challenging it can be to shake off people's fears about vaccination. This survey suggests that such fears are related to weaker science knowledge and demonstrates the importance of a solid science education."

Use of 'brain boosting' drugs much lower than previous estimates suggest
Participants were asked about their view of cognitive-enhancing drugs and whether they had ever taken them.

In 2011, a survey for the BBC and 'New Scientist' suggested relatively high levels of usage (38 per cent); however, the Wellcome Trust Monitor, which was more representative of society than the previous survey, suggests the real figure is much lower. Only 2 per cent of adults and 1 per cent of young people claimed to have used medication normally used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dementia to improve their focus, memory or concentration.

Opinions were divided over whether it was acceptable to use cognitive-enhancing drugs. Only one-third of adults (35 per cent) and young people (34 per cent) believe that using medication to improve one's cognitive ability for an exam or interview is acceptable. In each case, a similar proportion hold the contrary view - 34 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.

People believe that cognitive function can be improved via a range of approaches. Puzzles are seen as most effective: 87 per cent of adults and 86 per cent of young people said they are a very or fairly effective means of improving focus, memory or concentration. This may explain why 58 per cent of adults and 63 per cent of young people had tried using puzzles or playing 'brain training' games to improve their cognitive performance.

High public interest in medical research but poor understanding of how science works
The survey found a high level of interest in medical research among the public - more than seven in ten adults (75 per cent) and nearly six out of ten of young people (58 per cent). Despite this, understanding of how research is conducted is not deep - and levels of understanding have fallen since 2009. While most adults (67 per cent) and half of all young people (50 per cent) recognise the concept of a controlled experiment in science, most cannot articulate why this process is effective.

Two-thirds of the adults that were questioned trusted medical practitioners and university scientists to give them accurate information about medical research. This fell to just over one in ten (12 per cent) for government departments and ministers. Journalists scored lowest on trustworthiness - only 8 per cent of adults trusted them to give accurate information about medical research, although this was an improvement on the 2009 figure of 4 per cent.

Contact

Craig Brierley
Media Relations Manager
The Wellcome Trust
T
+44 (0)20 7611 7329
M
+44 (0)7957 468218
E
c.brierley@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes for editors

Wellcome Trust Monitor: Fact Box
Wellcome Trust Monitor is an independent survey of 1396 adults and 460 young people (aged 14-18), carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Wellcome Trust.

  • Three-quarters of adults and nearly six in ten young people are interested in medical research.
  • Five in ten adults and almost six in ten young people think that life evolved as a result of natural selection, with God playing no part in the process.
  • A clear majority of adults say they are familiar with the terms DNA and "genetically modified", but half of all adults and young people have never heard of the "human genome".
  • More than 90 per cent of adults and young people think that medical research will lead to an improvement in the quality of life for people in the UK in the next 20 years.
  • 40 per cent of adults expressed concern that not enough money is being spent on medical research.
  • 60 per cent of adults say they would be willing to participate in a medical research project that would require giving access to their medical records.
  • Two-thirds of adults trust medical practitioners most as a source of information about medical research. Six in ten adults have little trust in journalists to provide such information, and half of people likewise had little trust in the government.
  • Three-quarters of adults believe that members of the public should have at least some role in making decisions about the direction of medical research.
  • Eight in ten adults and seven in ten young people believing there to be little if any risk of serious side effects from vaccinations.
  • More than one in ten adults and around one-quarter of young people believe that vaccinations carry a fairly or very high risk of serious side-effects.
  • Nine in ten adults and young people agree that people have a personal responsibility to obtain the recommended vaccinations for themselves or their children to help stop the spread of disease.
  • 53 per cent of adults and 45 per cent of young people think that medications normally used to treat conditions such as ADHD and Alzheimer's are an effective means of improving focus, memory or concentration.
  • The use of medications that can enhance cognitive performance through improved focus, memory or concentration is very rare - 2 per cent of adults and 1 per cent of young people said they had used cognitive enhancers.
  • Only one-third of adults and young people believe that using medication to improve one's cognitive ability for an exam or interview is acceptable, and a similar proportion hold the contrary view.
  • 82 per cent of young people think that school science lessons are interesting - 58 per cent say they are more interesting than maths and English lessons.
  • Both adults and young people agree that studying science helps your career, regardless of the work you do.
  • Of the various things that young people say encouraged or discouraged them when learning science, the quality of the teacher is the most commonly mentioned, followed by the opportunity to conduct experiments.
  • Factors commonly discouraging young people include science being too difficult or being boring.
  • Four out of ten (41 per cent) young people said they are interested in a career in science. The most popular choices of scientific career include medicine (24 per cent of young people interested in a career in science), biology (21 per cent), chemistry (13 per cent), forensic science (11 per cent) and engineering (9 per cent).
  • Only one in four young people feels that there are not many female scientists. However, young women are more likely to be concerned about science not being a field for "people like me" than young men are.

View the full report, datasets and infographic summaries.

About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

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