How do the public really feel about science and research?
The Wellcome Trust Monitor provides a unique insight into how the public understands and views medical research. Through interviews with a sample of the UK population every three years since 2009, the Monitor enables the medical and scientific community to understand themes such as public trust in medical information, participation in medical research and levels of knowledge and understanding. Ethan Greenwood from the Insight and Analysis team explores some of the key findings…
The latest Monitor findings reveal insights about what people think they know about science and medicine, compared to what they actually do. This has implications for the way in which people make sense of medical research and use that information to make judgments about their own health needs.
For example, respondents were asked how well they understand the term ‘antibiotic resistance.’ Among those who say they have a strong understanding of this, less than half correctly state that antibiotics cure bacterial infections but not others such as viral, flu, fungal infections etc. When those who had heard of the term were asked what they understand by it, 31% said it was the body that became resistant, not the bacteria.
Around two in five of the public say they usually understand stories about science in the news, and a further half say they sometimes understand them. But only 13% of those who say they usually, or sometimes, understand these stories feel very confident discussing them with others.
Engagement with medical research
The majority of people are interested in medical research and hearing from scientists, particularly in relation to new drugs, treatments and how the body works. When asked about more specific areas, 55% of people noted interest in mental health research. This is the only area that has seen a significant rise in interest since 2012, when 48% of people said they were interested in the subject.
Most of the medical research that the public encounter passively occurs via the TV, mainly through the news or a factual documentaries. When actively seeking medical information, 90% of people, perhaps unsurprisingly, use the internet.
Over a fifth of the public participated in informal science activities in the last year, such as going to a science museum or zoo/aquarium. Findings suggest that there is some unmet demand for science engagement, especially among those who are very interested. For example last year 7% of the public went to science talks but 20% said they would be interested in listening to a lecture, talk or debate from a scientist
Trust in medical research
There has been an overall decline in trust in institutions responsible for disseminating medical research information, especially medical research charities where trust has declined from 60% in 2012 to 37% in 2015. The reasons for this drop in trust are not clear, and respondents were not asked about these in the survey.
Doctors and other medical practitioners are the most trusted and trust in scientists depends on the type of place they work; university scientists being the most trusted while those working for private industry the least. The main reason expressed for trust in doctors, university scientists and medical research charities is faith in their expertise, while journalists and private industry scientists are distrusted for exaggerating information relating to their research. Those who distrust scientists working for pharmaceutical companies say this is because they believe they will always be trying to present themselves in the most positive light.
In terms of interactions with GPs, the public feel overwhelmingly confident about when it’s appropriate to book a doctors appointment, and just under half feel they can challenge their diagnoses.
The Wellcome Trust Monitor also explores the publics’ attitude to food and drink, sharing of medical data and the value of science in everyday life. If you would like to explore the results in more detail, please visit the website.