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

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.