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Research funders ask public what they really think about stem cell research

Medical Research Council website

26 November 2007

The UK’s two biggest public funders of stem cell research have today launched a year-long national dialogue programme that aims to find out what the public really think about stem cell science. The programme will be the largest ever conducted in the UK on public attitudes towards and awareness of stem cell research.

With support from the Government’s Sciencewise programme, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) will run a public dialogue throughout 2008 – at a time when the legislation on this area of research is being debated in Parliament and as the possibility of stem therapies in the clinic draws closer. As the two organisations that invest the most public money in stem cell science, BBSRC and MRC can ensure that the dialogue will inform future policy in this area.

The Sciencewise project oversight group, made up of scientists, social scientists and ethicists, will oversee a programme of workshops across the UK that will bring members of the public and stem cell scientists together to discuss the future of the science and the issues raised.  Alongside these, detailed interviews with key stakeholders will aim to uncover both the potential of stem cell science in the UK, and people’s attitudes, awareness and expectations around this exciting but often controversial area of science.

Science and Innovation Minister Ian Pearson said: "Stem cell research offers enormous potential to deliver new treatments for many devastating diseases which affect huge numbers of people, and where there is currently no effective cure. Britain is a world-leader in stem cell research. That is why I am pleased that, through Sciencewise, the Government is supporting this project to bring scientists and the public together to identify public expectations, aspirations and concerns about stem cell research.

"I believe that now is the right time to increase active public engagement with science and technology. Bringing scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives is vital if we are to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Projects like this will help to ensure scientific work is relevant to society and that the public have trust in science."

The launch of the dialogue programme comes as results from the latest snapshot of public opinion on stem cell research showed that public support remains high and is climbing. The British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) Omnibus Survey of 1,013 people showed that 73% of the UK public support embryonic stem cell research under current or tighter Government regulation, up 11 percentage points from a Eurobarometer survey in 2005 asking the same question.

Dr Chris Mason, a stem cell scientist from UCL and member of the Sciencewise project oversight group, said: "Stem cell research is an enormously fast-moving area of research, with new developments reported almost daily. It’s just as important that scientists have an understanding and awareness of public attitudes to this type of research as it is for us to be able to explain how and why we want to do this science."

While the public will benefit from greater information about stem cell research through direct engagement with scientists, the exercise will culminate in a series of workshops to feed back to policy makers and the stem cell community the public's hopes and concerns.

Sarah Cunningham-Burley, professor of medical and family sociology at the University of Edinburgh and also on the project oversight group, said: "As this technology moves on it’s important that we ensure that we are using the most sophisticated methods possible for understanding and contextualising public attitudes to research."

Josephine Quintavalle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics and project oversight group member, said: "This is an important project which will engage the public more directly with the scientific community and explore critical ethical issues in a productive and forward looking way."

ENDS

Notes to editors

The BMRB survey was nationally representative and of 1013 people aged 16 and over.

The Sciencewise project is being run by a consortium of groups headed by BMRB, who won the tender following a competitive process. BBSRC and MRC were awarded a Sciencewise grant of £300,000 to run the programme.

BBSRC funds fundamental bioscience research, including work to understand the basic biology of stem cells. The MRC supports the full spectrum of biomedical research, including stem cell science. The MRC currently funds more than 100 stem cell research programmes, fellowships and studentships in the UK, as well as two units and three research centres. They also support the UK Stem Cell Bank.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About MRC

The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public's needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world. http://www.mrc.ac.uk

About Sciencewise

Sciencewise is a Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives.  It helps policy makers in Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform decision-making in emerging areas of science and technology. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes.

External contact

MRC Press Office

tel: 020 7637 6011

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382