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United Kingdom - Public engagement on brain science, addiction and drugs (2007)

Background, initiator and participants

In 2006, the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) launched an independent inquiry into the societal, health, safety and environmental issues that had been identified in an earlier report, DrugsFutures 2025?, published in 2005.

The drugsfutures public engagement activities ran from January to April 2007 and engaged specific groups that included parents of children with ADHD, students, teachers, drug users and ex-drug users, older people, young people, and people with mental health problems.

Objective: To explore the hopes and concerns of a broad cross-section of the public on current and future issues relating to brain science, addiction and drugs.

The question

The public engagement programme was intended to focus on the areas where addiction, brain science and drugs overlap, covering the three types of drugs identified in the original Foresight report: illegal and legal ‘recreational’ drugs, medicines for mental health and a new category of substances termed ‘cognition enhancers’ that might enhance the performance of the brain in specific ways, such as enhancing short term memory or speed of thought.

Specific questions were asked based on the following scenarios: drugs and young people, drugs for a smarter brain, and drugs and the law.


A working group was set-up by the AMS to support its independent review of the societal, health, safety and environmental issues raised by scientific advances in brain science, addiction and drugs (BSAD). The membership of the Working Group was intended to reflect the diversity of the issues to be explored and included experts in epidemiology, medicine, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, pharmacology, philosophy and law.

The Working Group consulted with relevant stakeholder organisations (for example, scientists, research funders, health professionals, charities and patient groups) on issues that may arise from current and future scientific developments.

There was a wide range of types of events, with a public launch in London (113 participants), 19 short (2 hour) outreach workshops (146 participants) around the UK, 5 regional workshops around the UK (180 participants) each focusing on a different topic (e.g. the law, mental health), and a Brainbox - two 2-day sessions six weeks apart for more in depth discussions covering all 5 topics from the regional workshops (25 participants). The outreach events, some of which involved presentations by drug users and ex-drug users themselves, included stakeholder consultation and expert examination simultaneously.

Notable features and lessons learned

The project was thoroughly evaluated. Some notable features on the value for the public participants are cited below (for more information, see the full evaluation of the project):

  • The process worked well for public participants. Overall, the respondents were very satisfied with the process and the way it was run. The process engaged people effectively,
  • the participants felt the process was very enjoyable, informative and worthwhile. The quality of discussion, and the interest and enthusiasm of the participants, was high,
  • participants learned something new. Many also said that being involved had clarified their thinking and affected their views about drugs and mental health issues,
  • there was increased enthusiasm for future involvement. As a result of being involved in this process, almost all respondents were more willing to get involved in discussions on policy issues in future. Almost all respondents also felt it was important to involve the public in discussing these sorts of issues, and many expressed the wish for more events of these sorts in the future,
  • many participants valued having a say and being listened to by the AMS and felt they could make a contribution to public policy and influence future decisions.


  • One of the public priorities, on the need for research into addiction as a disease, was picked up by the AMS and new funding of £8 million was made available from the Medical Research Council to do that research,
  • in July 2009, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (Home Office) launched a detailed review of the safety and regulation of cognition enhancers, which was raised as a research priority by public participants in its project,
  • the dialogue increased available intelligence on why some legal interventions on drug use do not work,
  • the dialogue directly influenced and improved the final AMS Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs (BSAD) report to Government. Public participants could trace their contribution in the final report.