The most recent Future Forum involved a survey of 1,000 14-to-18-year-olds on a range of issues including genetics research, medical data usage and COVID-19, gathering their perspectives on the impact such work has – and will have – on their lives. As we launch the latest report our Community Engagement Officer, Alyssa Chafee, gives us a rundown on the key recommendations and outputs from last year's programme.

Over the past 12 months we have not only reckoned with a global pandemic, but also witnessed unprecedented developments in science, technology and medicine. Young people have been particularly affected by these issues though according to our research, they don’t feel included in these national conversations; they do however have a lot to say in our most recent Future Forum report.

Future Forum aims to understand young people’s opinions on scientific topics and empower them to be part of the conversation. The programme brings young people and researchers together to discuss science-related issues that affect society and their futures. The experts share their knowledge and – most importantly – listen to the young people through a series of interactive activities. In the latest Future Forum, we commissioned a national survey of 1,000 14–18-year-olds, combining the results with smaller workshops that get into the issues at hand, culminating in the report.

Funded by the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, the Future Forum in 2020 focused on three topics: genetics research, how medical data (such as genetic information) is used and COVID-19. These workshops were held in late October and early November with 14 young people from across England, Scotland and Wales.

In our poll, we found that 77% of young people surveyed think that science is “a big part of our lives [and] that we should all take an interest”. Many were concerned that issues like climate change (71%) and future pandemics (69%) will affect their futures, but they also expressed hope about the impact of areas such as genetics.

When we gathered for our first virtual workshop, it was apparent early on that these young people were eager to know about research on COVID-19 and genetics. They want to know how medical data can be, and is being, used. They want to have a say in the ethics of this research now, and in the future. Despite this, they did not feel the UK Government or academic and research institutions have done enough to reach them, and they did not trust them to conduct their work ethically. 

When asked how they would prefer to access information, the top choices were traditional outlets like news media and institutional websites. Interestingly, 1 in 3 also suggested they would like to use social media channels such as YouTube and TikTok as sources. This suggests that although information may be more easily obtained on traditional platforms, there may be more relevant and direct ways of speaking to them which could improve trust. As has been seen in the transformation of delivering formal education, Governments and institutions could adopt a wider range of digital communications tools, such as short-form videos, which resonate better with young people.

Though it might look like this Future Forum highlights a stark disconnect between institutions and the young people they try to reach, I think it demonstrates that there is no ‘one sizes fits all’ public engagement approach. The recommendations can guide and improve the way scientists, institutions and the UK Government communicate effectively with this audience.

Our latest Future Forum recommends the following:

  1. Connect with real-life implications

In these workshops, we saw that young people’s willingness to engage sharply rose when discussing medical data, a topic with clear relevance to their daily lives. They were also drawn to genetics research that had direct impacts on human health, like developments that could prevent type 1 diabetes.

  1. Encourage young people’s opinions

We also saw their confidence grow with their knowledge over the course of the workshops, and with the knowledge that the attending researchers were there to listen as well as share.

  1. Let young people lead engagement

Once our participants knew they were being listened to, they had a lot to say, for example, Dissatisfaction at UK Government COVID-19 and regulations (p.7) and Ethical dilemmas (p.9).

  1. Use active participation

We asked how would prefer to be consulted on each topic, and they consistently chose face-to-face workshops like Future Forum, followed by speaking with MPs/other policymakers and speaking with scientists.

  1. Recontextualise engagement

It was clear across the survey and workshops that schools were one of the least popular environments to access information or interact with researchers. Bringing science out of the classroom gives rise to new opportunities to connect with young people.

Young people anticipate that various issues, from climate change to future pandemics, will continue to affect their lives. It is imperative that information is accessible on their terms and they are included in conversations about the science that affects them. Future Forum aims to facilitate these conversations - we plan to continue supporting institutions that want to connect with young people.

You can read the full Future Forum 2020 report here.

If you are interested in sponsoring a Future Forum at your institution, organisation or company, please get in touch on [email protected].