Choosing the Future: Genetics and Reproductive Decision-Making

Introduction

In July 2004 the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) launched a public consultation paper “Choosing the Future: genetics and reproductive decision-making” , receiving 196 written responses. People Science and Policy Ltd. (PSP) was commissioned by the HGC to conduct a qualitative analysis of the responses.

Attitudes to prenatal screening programs

Respondents support prenatal genetic screening programs where there may be resultant health benefits to mother and/or child, benefits to society from scientific advancement and/or where they allow individuals to take “responsibility” for their reproductive decisions. However, support for the expansion of screening programs tends to depend on the severity of the condition, its known heritability and whether there is treatment available or not.

There are concerns that the existence of routine prenatal screening programs puts pressure on individuals to take part, and that prenatal diagnostic testing (which follows screening) pressurizes parents to terminate after a positive result. Termination is felt by some to undermine the value of human life and encourage the stigmatization of those who live with genetic disorders.

Current provision of prenatal screening and diagnostic services

Prenatal screening and diagnostic services are thought to vary between regional health services and between different types of health professional in the UK. The need for national standards and the systematic evaluation of services is highlighted.

Counseling in diagnostic services is generally considered to be a high standard. However, the screening setting is viewed as highly pressurized with too much emphasis on “routine”. Whilst there is agreement that genetic counseling should be non-directive, there is felt to be a conflict of need where patients expect or want to be given advice. At the same time, the direction is seen to be implicit in the way that the current system is set up and to be affected by extraneous social and other pressures.

It is felt that the majority of information in the screening context is too heavily concentrated on the booking stage, where it must compete for time and attention with other issues. It is felt that the sheer volume and complexity of information can be too much for patients under such time pressure. The need to cater for different languages, formats, and educational abilities is stressed. Some feel that current processes provide insufficient information on the realities of living with a genetic disorder.

The relationship between prenatal diagnosis (PND) and termination

Termination is felt to be more likely the more severe the disorder, where there is a family history or previous experience, or if the counseling is poor. However, it is also felt that a number of women undergo PND for the purposes of information and to enable them to prepare for the birth of an affected baby.

Many respondents believe that decisions to terminate are influenced by the societal pursuit of perfection, widespread ignorance about disability, and by a lack of support for the parents of disabled children. However, others argue that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is an individual decision and will reflect a number of different factors. The desire to prevent future suffering is not necessarily believed to be inconsistent with support for those who live with disabilities by these respondents.

Attitudes towards pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)

PGD is seen as morally preferable to PND by some respondents because it avoids the need for later termination of an affected fetus, or the potential for miscarriages due to abnormality. In particular, PND may be preferable for such areas as tissue-typing or carrier testing. For others, PGD is less acceptable because it involves the destruction of a larger number of human embryos. Some respondents do not support either PGD or PND because they do not see an ethical or technical distinction between an early-stage embryo and a fetus.

PGD is seen as technically more complex and highly invasive. Conception rates are lower than for regular IVF. These factors lead to the view that PGD is more expensive. Respondents feel that testing should be restricted on a case-by-case basis according to the severity of the disorder, the risk of the pregnancy being affected and the cost and efficacy of the test. It is felt that additional regulation of PGD may be necessary, and there is support for the HFEA continuing to regulate this area.

Attitudes towards the selection of sperm, egg and embryo donors

Many respondents fear the social and health impacts that donor selection may have on society. Child welfare is an argument that is used both for and against donor selection. However, many supporters of donor selection argue that parents should be able to replicate how individuals in society select partners. The selection criteria that are permitted in the current system of adoption, which includes race and to some extent the physical characteristics of parents, are suggested as a model. Selecting for impairment (e.g. deafness) or enhancement (e.g. IQ) is not well supported.

In general, the current regulation of donation in approved clinics is considered to be appropriate. However, there are concerns about matching services, particularly those operating outside the UK, and the difficulty of monitoring individual contracts. Changes to rules about donor anonymity are highlighted as a particular area of concern.

Attitudes towards future developments in genetics and reproductive technologies

Areas of hope include the further identification of disease-causing genes, gene chip technology and non-invasive techniques that could also allow earlier stage screening. A number of respondents also express hopes about the development of treatments for genetic disorders, which may be applicable prenatally. There is a reference, in particular, to the potential of gene therapy and fetal surgery. There are conflicting views about the promise of embryo and stem cell research, particularly in relation to cloning, and about the use of DNA chips prenatally.

Changes to the current framework and organisation of services

There is felt to be a need for more genetics professionals and training of existing health professionals. There is also a call for tighter integration of genetic services with other areas of medicine. Accessibility of services and the need for further funding is stressed. The need for effective monitoring of the private sector is highlighted.

The HFEA is viewed as having a vital role in overseeing the development of reproductive genetic services, in collaboration with the HGC. However, parliamentary involvement in decision-making, particularly in the areas of PGD for tissue-typing is suggested by some, whilst others defend the autonomy of clinics to make individual decisions. Continued public involvement in policy decision-making is also highlighted.

The Human Genetics Commission Report

The full text of PSP’s report to the HGC is available on the HGC website http://www.hgc.gov.uk The Commission’s final report on genetics and reproductive decision-making is due to be published in summer 2005.

Science and Engineering Ambassadors

Purpose

The main purpose of Science and Engineering Ambassadors is to support teachers in delivering the curriculum and increase the number of people with qualifications in science, design and technology, ICT and mathematics. It is intended to:

  • enable young people to make links between what they learn at school and the world of work
  • give them an understanding of the types of careers that are open to them if they study science, design and technology, ICT and maths
  • motivate young people to develop their science, design, and technology, ICT and maths skills further

Ambassadors are being developed as a resource that will:

  • set quality standards to ensure all Science and Engineering Ambassadors successfully complete an approved induction
  • contribute to the Government’s overall target of enabling every child under 16 to have the opportunity to participate in an appropriate science, technology, engineering or maths-related activity at least once in each Key Stage (or equivalent) but it is not limited to that age group and
  • be available to every school in the UK that wants them.

The objectives are to:

  • improve educational achievement in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects by supporting both teachers and students in these subjects
  • encourage more young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths beyond age 16
  • encourage more young people to feel confident in pursuing a career involving science, technology, engineering, and maths
  • improve teachers’ and young people’s understanding of the role of science, technology, engineering and maths in the world.

Who can become Ambassadors and what they will do?

Science and Engineering Ambassadors are people with science, technology, engineering and maths skills employed in a variety of occupations at all levels. They may be employed as scientists or engineers or they may be using those skills in other environments. Ambassadors may be technicians and research assistants working at or below degree level, graduates, PhDs or leaders in their field.

The most important characteristic is that they be able to inform and enthuse teachers and students about studying science, technology, engineering or maths as well as the importance of these subjects in everyday life and as a potential career. As a group they must be willing and able to work with young people, including primary school children, and with teachers, schools and in other educational environments such as further education colleges and after school activities with the usual safeguards.

Ways in which they might work include:

  • supporting teachers with the delivery of the school curricula by, for example, supporting practical work in the classroom; arranging and/or accompanying visits to outside organizations, or by supporting teachers behind the scenes in lesson preparation and updating work
  • supporting or running out-of-school activities, such as clubs and awards and competitions
  • mentoring students and teachers
  • addressing school groups, including parents and governors, about relevant topics, their careers, how to get into certain fields, their experiences, etc.
  • supporting careers guidance and acting as role models
  • supporting the whole school more generally with their technical knowledge
  • helping provide work experience placements for teachers and students.

Benefits to employers of releasing staff as Ambassadors

  • Career development of staff
  • Better profile in the local community; being seen to contribute to the local community
  • Raising interest among future generations as potential employees in the sector
  • Raising awareness of the roles of science, technology, engineering and maths in society, and the diversity jobs these subjects can lead to

Benefits to Ambassadors

  • Career development
  • Participation expected to be accredited as Continuing Professional Development with the Professional Institutions
  • Experience of working with external partners
  • “Feel good factor” from seeing the students enjoying and benefiting from the experience, leading to increased motivation about their job
  • For those from academia, a better understanding of the education system through which new students have passed

Benefits to Pupils

  • Improving contacts for work experience
  • Improving understanding in the wider community of school life
  • Potential extra funding from local employers
  • Improved school-business links and school-university links

Existing Schemes

Upon approval of their induction course, existing schemes can become part of Science and Engineering Ambassadors which includes personal liability insurance cover for all Ambassadors, funded by the Department of Trade and Industry.

To find out more

Contact your local SETPOINT. Contact details can be found at www.setnet.org.uk. National organizations should ‘phone SETNET on 0800 641415.

Public Attitudes to Stem Cell Research – establishing stem cell bank

Introduction

The Medical Research Council (MRC), following a recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer, has taken the lead in establishing a national Stem Cell Bank, which is hosted by the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC). The objective of this consultation was to understand the views of the public and in order to inform the communication activities of the MRC and the Bank, mainly with those likely to be asked to donate stem cells but also with the wider public.

Method

This consultation exercise comprised:

  • a consultation forum with a cross-section of experts;
  • two groups of men and two of women “who are blood donors or who carry an organ donor card or intend to leave their bodies to medical science”;
  • one group of men and one of the women ‘non-donors’ who were not blood donors, did not carry an organ donor card or intend to leave their bodies to medical science
  • one group of men and two groups of women who had successfully received in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment; and
  • one group of men and two groups of women undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

The 12 focus groups were run in eight English towns. There were between three and ten participants in each group. The groups were run in the summer of 2002 and the spring and autumn of 2003.

We distinguish between potential donors, which includes virtually everyone, and likely donors, that is, people in situations where they are likely to be asked to donate.

Findings

Views on stem cell research

Generally, the non-IVF participants accepted the use of embryos at a very early stage of development. However, people who had received IVF treatment had quite different views of embryos; the women, in particular, viewed embryos as babies and their frozen embryos as potential siblings for their existing children.

The creation of embryos for research was generally rejected, whether this was by IVF procedures using eggs and sperm or by cell nuclear transfer (CNT). CNT was viewed with great suspicion, despite the potential for compatibility with patients. It was recognized as cloning by many participants and there were a general fear and dislike of human reproductive cloning.

Obtaining stem cells from aborted fetuses was, for many people, more acceptable than creating embryos for research, providing the decision to abort was made separately from the decision to donate the fetus for research. Some participants felt that the donation of the fetus might bring some comfort to those in a very difficult situation.

Some participants found it difficult to engage with the idea of research, finding it easier to focus on therapies. As previous work has established, there was general support for the benefits offered by advances in healthcare but this was balanced, to some degree, by concerns regarding adequate control of research.

Concerns about private sector users generating excessive profits were particularly prevalent in the IVF groups, where some participants had paid for their own treatment. However, there was widespread recognition that the involvement of the private sector was unavoidable in the development of medicines.

It was explained that stem cells would be turned into lines, that is, grown in culture so that they continue to divide and that the line will therefore be immortal. Some participants reacted to this description of the cells as “immortal” with unease, partly because of concerns about what might be done in the future.

Donation

The complex and invasive procedure required for the donation of adult stem cells meant that participants did not regard this as a likely source. They felt that they would be more likely to donate for therapeutic reasons than for research. Taking stem cells from the brains of cadavers was seen as acceptable if the person had given consent during their lifetime. Several groups recommended that this be added to organ donor cards.

It was generally agreed that donors should not be paid for donations, although the invasive nature of the procedures led to discussions of in-kind payments such as time off work or sick pay. Some of those who had received IVF treatment perceived that the IVF clinics saw their relationship with the “patients” as fundamentally commercial in nature.

There was a strong desire expressed by several participants across the focus groups, to be able to specify the diseases for which “your” donation would be used. The difficulties in enabling this were dismissed by many participants.

Implications

Our findings suggest that members of the public are not likely to be stem cell donors unless they find themselves in particular circumstances. This report shows that for those who are likely donors, the option of the donation will be associated with traumatic periods of their lives. This amplifies the role and responsibilities of intermediaries (those who raise the issue of donation and gain consent from potential donors). The MRC and the Bank should, therefore, continue to build relationships with intermediary organizations and to develop material for likely donors in partnership with them.

Management and oversight of the Bank

The main benefit of a central Bank was seen to be the control it offers over the uses to which the stem cell lines are put, who has access to them and the objectives of the research conducted. Given that there is some ambivalence towards the actual conduct of this type of research, this provides reassurance both to the general public and to likely donors. Transparency was seen as the fundamental basis upon which management and control systems should be built.

Participants wanted to see clear lines of ownership and responsibility with accountability to some form of oversight body that was independent from the Bank and the “users”. Participants felt that the sanctions for breaking the rules should be severe enough to deter individuals and organisations from doing so.

There was great concern amongst the donor and non-donor groups that only researchers and clinicians working on “serious” or “life-threatening” diseases and illnesses should have access to the Bank. Some of the IVF women also wanted to ensure that the Bank played a role in supporting infertility research.

Participants saw a trade-off between the need to draw-in private sector investment to yield medicines and therapies, and allowing excessive commercial exploitation of a national resource provided by donors. Ultimately, private sector companies must be willing to be open to the same levels of scrutiny as academic researchers. It was also felt that some element of the profits made from any treatments developed should be re-invested in the bank to support further research or to support treatment.

A full report of the findings will be available on the MRC website.

Foresight Food Chain and Crops – a deliberative conference on novel foods

Feeding the Debate

The Foresight program’s Food Chain and Crops for Industry Panel ran an experimental debate on “The Use of Technology in the Food Chain”, under the title “Feeding the Debate”. The project was set up in response to concerns that public opinion and concerns did not tend to be explored until late in development processes with the consequent risk of adverse public reaction. The aim of the experiment was to examine the potential value of different mechanisms for engaging public audiences in the debate about possible developments in the food chain and to assess to what degree the public could engage with developments at a very early stage.

Four different methods were used, each managed separately but covering the same subject matter. The techniques included in the experiment were:

  • A standard quantitative survey;
  • Focus groups;
  • An internet discussion forum; and
  • A deliberative conference.

People Science & Policy Ltd managed the deliberative conference, which was developed during the early summer of 2001 and run on a Saturday in June. The deliberative conference took the form of a one-day meeting with some sessions where the experts and participants interacted and others where the participants discussed issues. During these sessions, they had the option of calling upon the experts to address particular questions. A PSP moderator facilitated all the sessions.

The objectives set for the deliberative conference were to assess:

  • Whether participants were able to express their views freely and openly without feeling intimidated;
  • Whether participants were able to grasp the technologies;
  • The extent to which the participants were able to identify issues arising from the technologies and their proposed implementation
  • How the participants responded to being given potentially conflicting information and views by experts;
  • The impact of having experts present on the process and the debate content;
  • In what circumstances, if any, this approach would be useful to decision-makers of different types with different objectives.

Feedback from the participants both on the day and in a subsequent follow-up conversation by telephone indicated that the format was successful in facilitating full and open discussions. A detailed report of the deliberative conference can be downloaded in PDF format here.

The full report on all the methods “Feeding the Debate” is available from www.foresight.gov.uk.

Consultation on the Supply of Genetic Tests Direct to the Public

Introduction

During the summer and autumn of 2002 the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) ran a public consultation on “The supply of genetic tests direct to the public”. The HGC commissioned People Science & Policy Ltd (PSP) to undertake eight focus groups that would provide lay perspectives on the issue to augment the views of interested groups and individuals that responded to the HGC’s consultation.

Understanding of genetics

The participants tended to equate “genetic” with “inherited” and to think that genetic disorders were very serious and largely incurable. They were unsure how to use prospective knowledge, whether it indicated a definite future disease or the probability of developing a disease. Interestingly, participants thought that they did not have enough knowledge to interpret genetic test results without professional input.

Awareness and use

This study found no awareness of genetic tests sold direct to the public but it is not a statistically representative sample and so no firm conclusions can be drawn from this finding.

The main drivers to use directly supplied genetic tests were thought to be: speed; convenience; and confidentiality. However, in the context of a free at the point of delivery NHS, the market for such tests was perceived to be very limited. This perceived low level of demand was reinforced by a lack of desire to have the knowledge such tests would give. Some definitely did not want this information but others could just not see how the information would be useful to them, especially in the light of their perceptions of genetic diseases. The medical profession was seen to be the source of further information and, if necessary, treatment. Those who took part in this research therefore responded that they would head for the doctor (their GP) on receipt of the results of a genetic test, unless it was clearly negative, so confidentiality from their GP was not a main motivator.

Views were divided on whether children should be tested and generally depended on the disorder. However, parental consent was seen as a necessity.

How consent would be obtained and verified by those providing tests if they did not have direct contact with the “patient” was an issue raised by some.

Credibility of tests

The source of the test was an important element in the credibility of the test. Doctors were the most credible source followed by pharmacists, with mail order and the Internet very much less credible.

There was also some concern about how the samples would be used and whether they would be used for database building or research. Some were content for their sample to be used for research provided consent was obtained.

Test results and counselling

Some participants believed that individual members of the public are not equipped to deal with the results of genetic tests and that medical input and counselling was vital. Others believed that if people want this information they should be able to access it without controls.

There was concern about insurance companies and employers having access to genetic information or using these tests directly with (potential) customers and employees.

Advertising

Concern was expressed in all the groups that the vulnerable – the elderly, those who live alone and the worried well – should be protected from those seeking to sell genetic tests direct to the public.

However, the view was also expressed that there should be “public information” about the tests and their availability for those who might want to purchase a genetic test.

Policy options

None of the participants was in a position to say whether existing legislation is adequate and we did not try to inform them about the current situation. We sought to elicit the framework the participants would expect to be in place.

Views were divided between strict regulation and a free market but self-regulation by the supplier companies was seen as flawed by all those who took part in this research. While it was accepted that some companies would adhere to a voluntary code, it was felt that others would not and that therefore this would not protect the public. The question of a voluntary code of conduct for medical professionals was not explored.

“Genes Direct” – The Human Genetics Commission Report

The findings of this project were used in the development of the HGC report ‘Genes Direct – Ensuring the effective oversight of genetic tests supplied directly to the public’.

Factors Affecting Science Communication: A survey of scientists and engineers

Introduction

People Science & Policy Ltd (PSP) was commissioned by The Royal Society, Research Councils UK and The Wellcome Trust to undertake the “Meeting the Challenge: Factors Affecting Science Communication” project. There were six aims:

  • To establish the relative importance of science communication to UK researchers
  • To examine the amount and type of science communication activities undertaken by UK researchers
  • To explore factors that may facilitate or inhibit science communication
  • To explore the extent to which researchers may wish to undertake further science communication
  • To explore the views of funders, senior academics, social scientists and other relevant groups on factors affecting research scientists engaging in science communication activities
  • To provide evidence about how universities, other research institutions, and funders can promote effective science communication.

Technical details

The survey was hosted on the PSP website and potential respondents were invited to take part via a personal email setting out the objectives of the survey and providing each potential respondent with their own hyperlink to the website. The survey was only accessible to those with a link to ensure that the sample was statistically representative.

The sample is designed to be representative of scientists and engineers undertaking research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) and used a two-stage sampling procedure. Sixty-six HEIs were invited to take part in the project and 50 agreed to do so (a response rate of 75%). Three thousand research staff at these HEIs were invited to take part and the achieved response rate is 52%, allowing for deadwood, that is, email addresses which bounced back as not having reached the intended recipient and people who told us that they were not eligible or no longer in post.

The survey was fielded in the week beginning 5th September 2005. Participants were sent an e-mail inviting them to take part in the survey, with a hyperlink, containing a unique identifier, to an Internet-based version of the questionnaire. Two reminders were also sent by e-mail to non-responders in the main university sample.

Rim weighting was applied to the data to ensure that the demographic profile of the survey respondents matched that of the target universe.

In addition, 41 in-depth interviews were conducted with a subset of respondents, key science funding organizations and others influential in higher education.

Key findings

The main finding is that researchers do not give priority to science communication activities because they feel they need to spend their time on research, although the majority of scientists wanted to be able to spend more time engaging with the public. The in-depth interviews found that success in research and obtaining funding for their department are the keys to career advancement. Researchers, especially in their early careers, therefore focus on these. Another key point is the willingness of researchers to get involved in activities organised by others.

At PSP we see the main conclusion as being the need for researchers to be rewarded in their careers for undertaking public engagement activities. This means demonstrating that they are contributing to their department’s success as well as science communication activities being important on CVs.

The survey has also revealed a very real role for science communicators and university press officers in organising activities where researchers can take part as professional scientists. For many, developing and delivering a science communication activity is outside their expertise and takes them away from research for too long.

The key findings of the survey are summarised below.

  • Engaging with non-specialists is needed to promote public understanding of science so that the public become better informed and understand the relevance of science to everyday life.
  • The most important audiences to engage directly are policy makers, schools and industry.
  • Three quarters of those surveyed had taken part in at least one science communication or public engagement activity in the last year.
  • There was a strong positive relationship between the number of activities undertaken by a scientist and their perceived importance of public engagement.
  • The need to spend more time on research was the most likely reason for scientists not to be involved in public engagement; the impact of the RAE was also highlighted in relation to this.
  • A fifth of respondents said that taking part in public engagement activities was perceived as a barrier to career progression by their peers.
  • The majority of junior staff would participate more if it helped with their career and they had the support of their heads of department.
  • The best incentive for public engagement would be that it generates more money for a scientists’ department.
  • Funders should support public engagement activity, although this should be an optional rather than a mandatory requirement of funding agreements.
  • Most of those surveyed had no media, communications or public engagement training.

Formative Evaluation of the Large Hadron Collider Communication Project

Introduction

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) wants to use the opportunity provided by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project at CERN to engage the public with particle physics. It is developing a four-year program with the twin aims of increasing public knowledge of, and support for, particle physics and inspiring young people to choose physics courses at 16 and subsequent decision points. PPARC commissioned PSP to conduct a formative evaluation with their key audiences: the general public; and students and their teachers.

Methodology

The project comprised:

  • a review of existing UK research on the general public’s knowledge of, and interest in, particle physics;
  • eight focus groups with members of the general public who were interested in science;
  • seventeen in-depth interviews (13 paired and 4 single) with a total of 30 science teachers; and
  • four focus groups with young people aged 14-18.

Conclusions

The findings illustrate that the overarching topics of interest to members of the public who are interested in science are the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. All types of media were mentioned as channels of communication that could be used to promote the LHC project, but there was a particular emphasis on the power of television.

With regard to teachers and students, particle physics is largely an A-level subject. Therefore, curriculum support would be best targeted at this level. There are a number of key factors that will get teaching materials noticed and used, these are: peer recommendation; trusted supplier; fitness for purpose/relevance; ease of use; access; format; and cost. In the wider school context, there is potential for the LHC to support teaching on ‘how science works’ and to inspire a wider age range of students as part of their school learning experience. Discussions with the students emphasized that the LHC is likely to be most effective if used to engage students within the context of school.

On the basis of these conclusions, a number of recommendations were made; these can be found in both the summary report and the full report.

Full report

For the full report see the PPARC website http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Ed/LHC.asp

Evaluation of Engineering a Better World

Introduction

Concern about the numbers of young people opting for careers in engineering led the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to explore ways of providing positive engineering influences to students, with the ultimate aim of encouraging greater uptake of engineering-related study and work.  Engineering a Better World (EaBW) was a three-year science education intervention, funded by the EPSRC and Yorkshire Forward, which was delivered to students aged 11 to 16 in selected Yorkshire secondary schools between 2004 and 2008.  The project aimed to:

  • improve student perceptions of engineering and related subjects, and knowledge of future career options; and to
  • understand the factors that contributed to, and impacted on, student perceptions, and the extent to which the intervention delivered an improvement in perceptions.

EaBW was managed by the Centre for Science Education (CSE) at Sheffield Hallam University and was developed and delivered by the four Yorkshire and Humberside SETpoints working with schools.  This ‘cascade’ delivery model aimed to maximize impact from the project by using existing materials and delivery channels.

Activities

The intervention in schools was based around ‘case studies’, projects which consisted of an engaging, engineering-type activity such as building a robot, a solar-powered buggy, or creating a product using smart materials. The ‘case studies’ included elements combining science, mathematics, and technology, and could be taught in the curriculum or as extracurricular activities, within single subject areas or across different departments. The ‘case study’ experience typically involved participation in a celebration event, which sometimes took the form of a competition between students from different schools.

Although the project took place between 2004 and 2008, schools initially delivered the projects in the pilot form to small groups of students.  The number of students involved increased from small ‘pilot’ groups in the first year to approximately 2000 in the second year and over 4000 in the third year.  Few students who took part experienced more than one case study, as teachers tended to repeat case studies with a fresh group of students each year.

Evaluation Methodology

Before and after taking part in the EaBW case studies, students were asked to complete questionnaires which recorded their perceptions of, and attitudes to science, technology, engineering, and maths.  A third questionnaire answered several months after the case study measured whether any changes in attitude were lasting.  Future study and career plans were also captured.  A ‘benchmark’ survey was also conducted to allow comparison of EaBW students with their peers across England.

Questionnaires from each stage were matched for each student, enabling an analysis of change at an individual level, and multi-variate analysis was conducted to identify factors associated with changes in perceptions.

Evidence from the questionnaires was examined further during focus group interviews with students, which explored aspects of the case studies that affected student perceptions of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and career choices.  In-depth interviews with teachers revealed their views on the effectiveness of the case studies as teaching tools and in affecting student perceptions and their views about the way in which the project was delivered in schools.

Main Findings

Baseline views

Students were generally positive in their attitudes toward science and technology in society.  However, whilst there was little difference in attitudes to science between male and female students, male students tended to be more positive about technology and engineering.

Most students who participated in EaBW already had positive images of scientists and engineers.  Despite this, there is evidence to suggest that a majority of students feel that careers in science and engineering are ‘not for them’.  This is particularly the case for female students who were less likely to have positive images of engineering and engineers.

A significant minority of students wanted to pursue the study of STEM subjects at post-16 level, although fewer wanted jobs involving those subjects.  Nevertheless, approximately a quarter of students aspired to professional occupations in fields broadly related to science and technology, such as medicine, design, engineering, and science.

The national benchmark survey asked some of the same questions of a representative sample of young people across England, and the results suggest that the attitudes of EaBW students are very similar to those of their peers across the country.

Impacts on students

Enjoyment of the case study was the main factor related to impact.  Specifically, those who enjoyed the case study a lot tended to improve in their perceptions of STEM, whilst those who didn’t enjoy the case study were more negative afterward.  However, attitudes reverted towards their original positions in the longer term.

Views about science and engineering among those who enjoyed the case studies tended to be more positive than average before participation, whilst the opposite is true of those who didn’t enjoy participation.  Therefore the case studies appealed most to those already interested in science and engineering and helped to reinforce this interest in the short term.

The eleven case studies each had distinctive characteristics.  The extent to which students enjoyed the case studies reflected their pre-existing interests.  Some case studies such as the mini-robot appealed more to male students, whilst some such as textile engineering were more engaging to female students.

Elements of the case studies that distinguished the projects from their usual classroom experiences were widely enjoyed by students, including making a product by working in teams and taking part in celebration events.

In some schools there little or no careers content in the case studies when they were delivered in the classroom.  In those schools, the project had a negligible impact on students’ knowledge and perceptions of science and engineering careers.

Impacts on teachers

Teachers played a central role in EaBW.  They were not merely the gatekeepers allowing activities into schools, they were the principal deliverers of EaBW activities and a number also had central roles in the development of activities.

Teachers took part in EaBW because the case studies met teaching needs by fulfilling national curriculum requirements, whilst also providing activities that developed team working and problem-solving skills.  Teachers recognized that students were often enthused by the experience.  Other benefits for teachers included access to equipment and funding that they would not otherwise have had, the support of the SETpoint and teachers from other schools, and the opportunity to develop latent ideas into a case study.

Teachers who had already developed ways of promoting awareness of science and engineering careers through lessons used the case studies to this end.  Some students were influenced by positive experiences of the case studies and were able to make associations between their prior interest in science and maths, and engineering and STEM careers.  Nevertheless, teachers felt that long term attitude change would require a longer-term commitment to the promotion of engineering and science than was possible within the duration of EaBW, through which most participants experienced only one case study.

Moreover, many teachers did not promote science and engineering careers, and some teachers did not think of the case studies as engineering activities.

Conclusions

The baseline surveys showed that a large proportion of young people have positive attitudes towards science, technology, engineering and maths.  Projects such as EaBW endeavor to harness and develop this enthusiasm.

Enjoyment of the case studies was associated with a positive change in attitudes to science and engineering, and the students who enjoyed the EaBW case studies tended to be more positive than average before taking part.  By appealing to those who already had an interest in science and engineering, EaBW provided a positive influence for those who may consider STEM careers in the future.  However, the effect of the project on attitudes was short term, and such experiences may need to be reinforced over a longer duration to provide a long term effect.

The case studies were used effectively by some teachers to broaden their students’ knowledge of STEM careers in a positive way.  However, the teaching of the case studies often did not include any careers content.  This demonstrates a disadvantage of the cascade implementation model.  The chain of implementation from the project managers at the CSE, through the SETpoints to the schools, allowed dilution of the informational ‘message’ of the case studies, and therefore the project demonstrated a limited effect on student perceptions.

Engineering a Better World was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Yorkshire Forward, and was delivered by the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University, and the Yorkshire SETPoints.

An Assessment of the Chemistry-Biology Interface

Introduction

The Society of Chemistry commissioned this project in order to have a better understanding of the role of chemistry in biological research today1. The overall aim was to provide evidence to underpin recommendations to academic and other research institutions and to funding bodies regarding how best to foster high-quality research across the chemistry-biology interface and indeed, across other disciplinary interfaces.

The project comprised:

  • interviews with the BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and the Wellcome Trust
  • a review of the existing literature on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and research at the chemistry-biology interface;
  • an Internet survey of 446 scientists working at the chemistry-biology interface (May/June 2007); and
  • six follow-up case studies with survey respondents (27 researchers July/August 2007).

The review of previous studies made it clear that success and improvements in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work require the co-ordination of all those involved.  The literature implies that research conducted across traditional disciplines may require significant changes to traditional academic ways of working, university structures, research funding, and the research (and researcher) assessment mechanisms.

Importance of chemistry-biology interface research

A fairly high level of knowledge transfer was reported.  Over a third (35%) of respondents said that their work had led to a patent, 12% that it had led to the establishment of a new company, 7% that they had developed new therapy(ies) and 7% that they had developed new medicine(s).

Infrastructure and Environment

Working practices

The driving force behind working practices was the nature of the work being done and the contribution required from each discipline.  Key to successful collaboration seems to be a shared vision for the work around a specific problem and an acknowledgment that experts in both disciplines have more than subject knowledge and techniques to offer.

The most common working relationship involves cross-departmental collaboration within an institution.  Physical proximity and personal interaction facilitate collaboration and are important to the success of the collaboration but common goals and good personal relationships can overcome distance and enable collaboration between institutions.

Institutional Support

he main actions institutions had taken to facilitate interdisciplinary research were to bring people together by convening seminars and similar activities and establishing interdisciplinary centers.  Mechanisms reported to support multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research included:

  • facilitating physical proximity and promoting interaction at a personal and departmental level (although the infrastructure is important, it is not pre-eminent in facilitating effective collaboration);
  • interdisciplinary centers (including physical buildings and virtual centers);
  • regular inter-departmental seminars;
  • joint undergraduate course provision;
  • cross-departmental PhDs;
  • joint faculty appointments; and
  • physically adjacent chemistry and biological sciences laboratories.

Respondents identified a number of barriers to research at the chemistry-biology interface:

  • institutional structures that are designed to maximize RAE scores;
  • a lack of coordination between departments;
  • competition between departments for funding and other resources; and
  • a lack of suitable laboratory space.

Research Funding

Half of the respondents (50%) agreed or agreed strongly that ‘The interface of chemistry-biology is not understood by funders’ and a fifth disagreed.  Those based in chemistry departments were more likely to agree than those based on biological science departments (61% compared to 42%).  These findings suggest that there is a significant communications gap between researchers and the Research Councils.

Only two of the 446 respondents had been funded solely by industry in the last three years, although 25 (6%) reported that industry was their main funder.  Nearly a fifth (18%) had not received any funding from BBSRC, EPSRC or MRC and for 37% of the sample, none of these Research Councils were their main source of funding.  This 37% tended to be funded by the Wellcome Trust, industry, the EU and Cancer Research UK.

Over half (57%) agreed that ‘It is difficult to get funding in the UK because grant reviewers do not have the right expertise’.  Those based in chemistry departments were more likely to agree strongly with this than those in biological science departments (34% versus to 17%).

The case study discussions found that in research at the chemistry-biology interface often the chemistry is not ‘novel’ or cutting edge, even though the findings from the research would be new.  This means that reviewers with a chemistry background may not see the proposed work as worthy of funding, although the biological questions may be important.

Current Health of Chemistry-Biology Interface

Research

UK researchers are working on a wide variety of topics at the chemistry-biology interface.

Chemistry and progress in medical research

Some 82% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘Medical research is dependent on chemistry to move forward in understanding basic biological systems’.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, those based in chemistry departments were more likely to agree than those based in biological science departments (87% compared to 77%) and were more likely to agree strongly (49% compared to 28%).

The state of research at the interface

The most commonly cited area of strength in research at the chemistry-biology interface, stated by 26% of all respondents was structural biology/enzyme function/structure-function/protein folding.  The Whitesides report also identified protein chemistry as an area of strength.  The second most commonly cited area was medicinal chemistry which included medicinal chemistry, drug discovery, drug delivery, drug design and informatics and chemical genetics.

The current hot topics in chemistry-biology research were thought to be synthetic chemistry and protein chemistry.

Publication

Some of the case study researchers said that a lot of journals are interested in their work.  Others felt that publishing interface research was more difficult than getting single discipline research accepted.  These differing views may be a result of the research fields.  However, it was said that papers covering very new topics can be difficult to place because it is not clear where to submit them.

The future of research at the interface

A sizable minority (42%) said that they did not think that current undergraduates would be equipped to do research at the chemistry-biology interface.  Those in chemistry departments were much more optimistic about this than those in other departments.  There was concern that recruitment at post-doctoral level for researchers at the chemistry-biology interface is very difficult in the UK.   Getting PhD students for the field was also thought to be difficult but less difficult then finding post-doctoral researchers.

___________________________________

1 BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and the Wellcome Trust also contributed funding.

Exploring public attitudes to climate change and the barriers and motivators to travel behaviour change

Introduction

  • This report presents the findings from an 18-month deliberative study that has explored public attitudes to climate change and how this relates to their personal travel choices.
  • Following from the conclusions of a review of the evidence base published by the Department for Transport, this study forms an important part of the Department’s social research program to inform the development of policy and communications to encourage travel behavior change to reduce personal CO2 emissions.
  • There were three primary aims from the study: i) to provide a greater insight into public understanding of climate change and how it relates to personal travel behaviors, ii) explore the barriers and motivations for travel behavior change, and iii) to consider the role of information in increasing public awareness and understanding of the issues.
  • The research design included a 10-month fieldwork period with approximately 150 participants comprised five exploratory qualitative workshops, quantitative collection of attitudinal information, and collection of before, during and after behavioral travel diary information.

Key findings

Public understanding and engagement with climate change

  • Awareness of the term ‘climate change’ was extremely high.  However, understanding of the causes of climate change was more limited as was an understanding of the relative importance of both transport as a source of climate change emissions and the contribution of different transport modes.
  • Acceptance that climate change is happening was high, but not universal.  Those who accept the existence of climate change typically cited local weather conditions, especially milder winter conditions as their rationale.  Many were also able to give tangible observations of the existence of climate change such as changes in outdoor working conditions, changes to local wildlife and vegetation.
  • However, many people viewed the negative impacts of climate change as being too distant to influence their concern.  This included impacts observed in the UK.  For example, the widespread flooding which occurred in England during summer 2007 did not notably influence expressed concern.
  • Although the majority accepted that climate change was happening, this did not always mean that human activity was recognized as a cause.  To this extent, some people believe that climate change, whilst happening, is simply accelerated by human activity and would have occurred naturally anyway. Similarly, acceptance of a human role does not imply acceptance of individual contribution.  Even some of those accepting the latter cited the contributions of other areas such as industry and other countries as outweighing their own contribution.
  • Conflicting media reports and a perceived debate within the scientific community underlie such skepticism.  This was cited by some as a reason not to take action.
  • Reported concern was quite high, though some variability was identified.  Notably, women were more concerned about the issue although male concern increased in response to the provision of information and opportunity for deliberation.

Barriers and motivations for travel behavior change

  • Most people feel more willing and able to reduce their domestic CO2 emissions compared with those from transport use.
  • Stated willingness to change behaviors is largely high.  However, willingness to change transport behaviors is consistently lower than willingness to change non-transport (e.g. domestic) behaviors.
  • The key attitudes which define intentions to reduce car use included a sense of personal responsibility to act and the extent to which individuals felt they could act.
  • Crucially, and reflecting the widely reported ‘attitude-behavior gap’, barriers to behavior change identified within the study mean that actual behavior does not reflect stated intentions to change.
  • A wide range of motivations and barriers were observed.  These included attitudinal and emotional barriers (e.g. habit), information barriers, lifestyle barriers, and practical issues (e.g. whether transporting items/children).
  • Relative to the above, environmental motivations are a secondary concern where considered at all.  To this extent many people feel that there is no social pressure to reduce carbon consumption from travel choices but neither is doing so perceived as socially unacceptable.  Indeed, for some people reduced environmental impact is viewed as additional advantage of a change made for other reasons such as cost and time savings, health benefits etc.
  • The interplay between these barriers and motivators is complex and varies according to the transport behaviour under consideration e.g. mode shift, trip reduction.  In addition, the extent to which people base their decisions on perceived rather than actual barriers cannot be underestimated.
  • When considering the range of travel behaviours that can be adopted to reduce CO2 emissions, many people felt more able to make adjustments to their trip patterns (e.g. by trip chaining, shopping locally), or driving behaviours (e.g. ‘smarter driving’, keeping tyres at correct pressure) than changing the mode of transport they use.  Although important, such changes will not elicit CO2 savings of the magnitude achievable by more significant behavior change such as mode shift and car-sharing, which the majority of people are less willing to consider due to the barriers identified.
  • The behavior change activities that seem to be more acceptable have a range of benefits to individuals including financial, time, health and environmental and are perceived by participants as easy to incorporate within existing lifestyles.  Identifying and utilizing these levers in encouraging these behaviors is identified as particularly important.
  • However, encouraging more significant travel behavior change will require greater consideration of identified barriers as they relate to individual journey types.  This will enable appropriate interventions to be developed, which will be important to support communications of information on wider benefits to the individual in order to encourage more significant behavioral change.

Role of information in improving public awareness and understanding

  • The information needs of the majority of people are broadly the same.  Most people request information relating to the underlying science of climate change, potential technological solutions, scope for better transport planning to encourage reduced car use, and national government policy.  The majority of people respond positively when provided with this information in a way that they deem to be accessible.
  • Many people are keen to explore what they could do to reduce their personal travel CO2 emissions and the impact of making any changes.  Although many people expected a ‘magic bullet’ to exist particularly through technological developments, many were surprised that travel-related alternatives extended beyond a presumed call to ‘give up the car’.
  • Provision of information was shown to increase understanding and engagement and did increase levels of reported concern (notably amongst males).  Opportunity to deliberate with this information also increased feelings of personal responsibility and ability to act; both were identified as linked with intentions to change behaviour.
  • Given the identified information gaps and lack of understanding of issues important to climate change, information provision is clearly a necessary and potentially effective step in increasing public engagement.
  • Despite the need for information and the increased intentions to change travel behaviour that resulted from deliberation of provided information, information on its own was insufficient to produce behaviour change in the absence of additional supporting measures.
  • Given the range of attitudes to climate change and the complexities of stated barriers and motivations for travel behaviour change identified by this study, it is important that communication messages target the differing needs of different groups.  On this basis a ‘one size fits all’ communications strategy is unlikely to be effective.
  • It is also clear from this research that the differences in people’s engagement with the issue do not segment according to traditional socio-demographic factors.  More needs to be done to better understand the attitudinal differences across the population in relation to the complexities of travel choices to enable the consideration and development of targeted policy and communications.

Further information

The full report is available from the Department for Transport website www.dft.gov.uk  in the social research and evaluation sub-section of policy research and guidance pages. View report
PSP is working on a follow-up study.