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UK's attitudes and beliefs towards science and medicine

Nationwide survey reveals picture of UK's attitudes and beliefs towards science and medicine

*       Young people believe that children have the right to be vaccinated which overrides their parents' preference
*       Fear of vaccination risk associated with lack of general science knowledge
*       Use of 'brain boosting' drugs much lower than previous estimates, but opinion divided over their use

Wellcome Trust Monitor, an independent survey of 1,396 adults and 460 young people (aged 14-18 years) has revealed the most accurate picture to date of what the UK thinks and understands about science, biomedical research and science education.

The survey, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and carried out by Ipsos MORI, explores everything from people understanding of biomedical research through 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 amongst 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 which overrides their parents' preference

Whilst the majority of adults and young people (79% and 70%) regard vaccinations as safe, believing there to be little if any risk of serious side effects, more than one in ten adults (15%) and one quarter of young people (23%) 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: whilst only 4% of adults who scored highly on the quiz thought the risk of serious side-effects was high, this rose to 22% of adults amongst those who scored low.

On the question of responsibility, the overwhelming majority of people - 91% of adults and 89% 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% compared with 69%) 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, but opinion divided over their use

Participants were asked 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%); however, the Wellcome Trust Monitor, which was more representative of society than the previous survey, suggests the reality is much lower. Only 2% of adults and 1% 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%) and young people (34%) believe that using medication to improve one's cognitive ability for an exam or interview is acceptable. In each case, a similar proportion holds the contrary view - 34% and 33% respectively.

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

High level of public interest in medical research but poor understanding of how science works

The survey found a high level of interest in medical research amongst the public - over seven in ten (75%) adults and nearly six out of ten (58%) of young people. Yet despite this, understanding of how research is conducted is not deep - and levels of understanding have fallen since 2009. While most adults (67%) and half (50%) of all young people recognise the concept of a controlled experiment in science, most cannot articulate why this process is effective.

Two-thirds of adults questioned trusted medical practitioners and university scientists to give them accurate information about medical research. This fell to just over one in ten (12%) for Government departments and ministers. Journalists scored lowest on trustworthiness - only 8% of adults have a great deal of trust in them to give then accurate information about medical research, though this figure was an improvement on the 2009 figure of 4%.