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Largest ever stem cell 'dialogue' provides insight into public attitudes

Medical Research Council website Visit Sciencewise expert resource centre website

17 December 2008

Results of the largest ever public dialogue on stem cell research in the UK have revealed high levels of public support for stem cell science and technology, from basic research to development of treatments. The results will be presented and discussed at a meeting in London on 17 December. The project captures the opinion, aspirations and ambitions of 200 members of the public on the science and ethics of stem cell research, as well as canvassing the views of nearly 50 stakeholders from fields such as science, medicine, industry, ethics and religion.

The public is keen for the UK to maintain the technological and regulatory lead it currently enjoys in stem cell research. Support for translating research into treatments was conditional on ensuring that public funding was focused on ‘serious’ medical conditions rather than cosmetic uses. The involvement of the private sector raised some concerns, and for public trust to be maintained it was important that future treatments should reflect public rather than solely commercial interests.

Academic scientists were viewed in general as being open, honest, and working for the public good. There was also felt to be an opportunity for funders, including research charities and Government, to further raise the profile and resources for stem cell research.

Supported by the Government’s Sciencewise programme, the research, commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), took the form of structured conversations between experts, non-experts and policymakers. The work builds on existing engagement activities run by the research councils, and is part of a coordinated response to a recommendation in the 2005 UK Stem Cell Initiative Report (the Pattison Review) calling for a sustained dialogue with the public on stem cell research.

The dialogue revealed that both professionals and the public valued investment in basic research that could, for instance, address obstacles to the development of treatments. The public would also like to see more emphasis on preventative medicine, through individuals taking control of their own health, and actual cures as a result of research, rather than what they see as the current over-emphasis on medical treatments. There was strong support for giving priority to serious diseases for which current treatments are limited.

The report will feed into decisions that research councils and others will make as the research matures and more stem cell treatments move closer to clinical application. Policymakers from the research councils and Government departments have already had the opportunity to explore some of the areas covered in the dialogue and use the results in decision making, for example in developing guidelines for consent and in forming policy on cord blood banking.

Dr Darren Bhattachary, Project Manager at the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB), which carried out the project, said:"The report demonstrates strong public support for stem cell research, confidence in regulation, and trust in scientists, but that support is conditional on a number of issues around consent, commercialisation and the use of embryos. This requires coordinated communications by funders to ensure that scientific developments, including uncertainties, are presented clearly, and agencies working together to ensure that regulation remains fit for purpose."

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC) said: "The passage through parliament of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act earlier this year clearly demonstrated the importance that research councils must place on making sure that their research is able to take into account and respond to the concerns and aspirations of UK society. We have a responsibility to make sure that we maintain the high level of support for research shown in this report by engaging on issues such as commercialisation, co-ordination, and regulation."

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) said: "Participants noted the importance of dialogue to the development of trust in stem cell science. BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Panel will help to embed the outcomes in policy development and strategic planning. We see this exercise very much as one step in a continuing process of communication and engagement."

Minister for Science and Innovation Lord Drayson said: "The government takes public dialogue extremely seriously. In areas such as stem cell research – which are so important to this country’s future – it is vital that any public concerns are listened to and acted upon.

He continued: "Initiatives such as Sciencewise provide us with the framework to do this and build on what we’ve achieved to date with open discussions on stem cell science. This project’s findings highlight the public’s acceptance of stem cell research – this is extremely encouraging and something I want to maintain through exchanges such as Sciencewise, as stem cell research progresses."

The full report, ‘Stem cells public dialogue’, will be available on the MRC website from Wednesday 17 December.


Notes to editors

The event on 17 December, 4-7pm will be held at One Great George Street, London SW1P 3AA.

Speakers include:

  • Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation
  • Dr Darren Bhattachary, Director, BMRB
  • Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive Officer, BBSRC
  • Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive Officer, MRC

If you would like to attend please contact the MRC press office.

The BBSRC and MRC commissioned a consortium, led by the British Market Research Bureau, to explore public attitudes towards stem cell research. The project was funded by the Sciencewise programme, part of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). It responded to Recommendation 11 of the Pattinson report: "The Research Councils, charitable funding bodies, and Government Departments should develop a sustained and coordinated programme of public dialogue on stem cell research over the next decade." Dialogue activities took place in summer 2008. Workshops ran simultaneously in London, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

The dialogue revealed that the public thinks that in the future three main areas will be important in medical science:

  • Preventative medicine (focusing on enabling technologies that empower people to take control of their health)
  • Curative medicines (seen as the ultimate goal of medical science)
  • Medical treatments (perceived as the current focus – on treatment of symptoms rather than underlying causes, often driven by profit motives)

About BMRB

The British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) is one of the leading market research agencies in the UK and a key operating company within the Millward Brown Group which, in turn, is part of Kantar, WPP's insight, information and consultancy division. For more, visit

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.


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 £420M 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.

About Sciencewise

Sciencewise is a Department for 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
out of hours: 07818 428 297


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382