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Monitoring Public Attitudes to Science

21 Jul, 2015
B0007066 Memory Credit: Neil Webb. Wellcome Images Illustration showing the number of different processes carried out by the human brain on an daily basis. The brain is responsible for all cognitive function including calculation, learning and memory, path finding and landmark recognition, logical thinking etc. Digital artwork/Computer graphic 2008 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see

Credit: Neil Webb. Wellcome Images

Public attitudes to science have evolved over time, but getting a reliable impression of how people view the big issues is no easy task. The Wellcome Trust Monitor is a unique, large-scale survey that is conducted every three years to look at changing attitudes to science. Our third Monitor survey is currently in progress, and Wellcome Trust project manager Ethan Greenwood explains what we hope to learn…

At the Wellcome Trust we are champions of public engagement with science, but what about scientists’ engagement with the public? Sometimes it is important for us to step back and look at things through a different lens, and the Wellcome Trust Monitor aims to shine a light on people’s attitudes to science.

The Trust introduced the Monitor survey in 2009 to help inform our work in areas where the public perspective is critical. Results from the 2012 Monitor revealed that although terms like “human genome” have become an everyday part of our vocabulary, public understanding of these terms was relatively low. Insights like this can be used to help advise scientists how best to communicate their work more effectively, and also feed into our public engagement work. This is just one example of why it is important to step outside of the scientific community and talk to others.

Understanding Genetics

These days surveys are ten-a-penny, but ensuring the results are from a representative sample of the UK public, and not skewed by bad question design or small numbers of responses, is a different matter. Aside from the Public Attitudes to Science Survey (PAS) commissioned by the government (last conducted in 2013), the Wellcome Trust Monitor is the only survey that offer reliable insights into current public thinking about science.

When conducting the Monitor survey, Ipsos Mori uses random sampling to reduce the problem of selection bias, with only those selected able to answer the questions. Had the survey been conducted online or by post, there is a risk that only those people interested in science would respond, thus failing to represent the population as a whole. For example the last Monitor in 2012 was the first representative survey to look at awareness and usage of cognitive enhancement medication, which established a benchmark for usage in the UK, even though there were previous non-representative online readership surveys. (This previous post by Patrick Sturgis goes into more details about how we ensure that the Monitor is scientifically robust.)

By repeating questions from previous Monitor surveys we can begin to build up a picture of changing attitudes and trends over the years. These results help us to get an overview of the position of science in society.

We have also added new questions to probe important areas of interest. For example, there have already been surveys on use of antibiotics, but the current Monitor survey will look at attitudes to them, and whether understanding the issue of drug resistant infections is associated with more responsible use of antibiotics. We can also use results from the Monitor survey to inform our upcoming education and public engagement initiative – “The Crunch”, which will examine the relationship between our food, our health and our planet.

Science touches every part of our lives in some way, and if we want to include people in the important conversations about it, we must first understand their existing perceptions and concerns. The Wellcome Trust Monitor is an essential tool for enabling us to gain these insights.

The third wave of the Wellcome Trust Monitor is currently being conducted and we make the full dataset and findings publicly available in 2016. Previous results can be found on the Wellcome Trust Monitor section of our website.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Manpreet permalink
    21 Jul, 2015 12:23 pm

    This is really interesting! It’s a good way to wake people up! :)

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