How many bi/gay people in the UK have never had a same sex partner?

Yougov have released a survey suggesting that nearly half of young people identify as having some bi/gay tendency. The survey also reports that as age increases, that tendency declines, yet even amongst people aged over 40 it is somewhere between 11 and 19%.

I got involved in a silly twitter argument where I was accused of biphobia for expressing some disbelief about this survey and for suggesting that people might not be entirely truthful about their sexual preferences as these numbers were inconsistent with reports of the number of people who have had at least one same sex partner in the UK. I was told that you can still be bi/gay without having had a same sex partner and it was bigoted of me to say otherwise.

Now, it’s entirely possible I am biphobic and unaware of it, but my intent was not to suggest that sexuality was determined by what one does with ones genitals and to whom one does it.

It is possible to quantify the level of people who have a bi/gay tendency and who haven’t acted on it, and this has been done by the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL), a survey that has taken place every decade since 1990.

Using the datasets from 2000 (the 2010 data is not yet published) researchers found that ~8% of men and ~11% of women have some level of attraction to the same sex (Table 4.1).

Men on the left, women on the right.

Moreover, this survey also gathered data for the number of homosexual experiences respondents have had in their life to date. Using the very broad totals to include any experience, including those with no genital contact, they found that 8.4% of men and 9.7% of women have had at least one homosexual experience over their lifetime.

When compared to the data for same sex attraction, this suggests that MORE men have had a homosexual experience than are attracted to men (0.3% of the population) while fewer women have than are attracted to women (2% of the population).

However you choose to interpret this data, there are clearly not huge percentages of the population who have some same sex attraction and who have never acted upon this*.

Therefore, something is probably very wrong with the Yougov data. Either the survey methodology, sample size or the honesty of respondents.

*In fact, the data tells us that some men will sleep with people they have no sexual attraction to, while some women will not sleep with people they have a sexual attraction to.


Science in an independent Scotland – letter of objection

Sir, Scotland is justifiably proud of its universities, its medical schools, and its profile in health-related and biomedical research. In 2013-14 the respected QS World Ranking system placed 18 UK universities in its top 100, three of them in Scotland. In life sciences and medicine, three Scottish universities were ranked in the top 100 along with 12 other UK universities. Scottish medical schools also do consistently well in UK comparisons and have particular research strengths in areas such as cancer, heart disease, hospital-based clinical medicine, inflammatory disease, mental health and health services research. Such success in an internationally competitive research environment reflects Scotland’s long-standing commitment to quality higher education and the determination of its universities to train, recruit and retain the very best doctors and biomedical scientists.


In the run-up to September’s referendum there has been much debate about whether an independent Scotland could maintain the research income from UK sources such as the Research Councils and health-related charities and upon which so much of its success depends. Thefollowing four examples illustrate just how well Scotland does through membership of the UK research funding system.


Firstly, Scottish institutions have done extremely well when competing for UK Research Council grants; for example in 2012-13 they won £257M (13.1%) of the funding available – a remarkable achievement for a country with just 8.4% of the UK population. The £83M raised by the University of Edinburgh accounted for one-third of its total research income in 2011-12 and was more than the funding provided by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). Similarly, in Dundee University only £21M of the £121M research income of the Colleges of Life Sciences and Medicine in 2012-13 came from SFC, the remainder coming mainly from UK Research Councils, medical charities based in England and the EU.


Secondly, the most recent UK Clinical Research Collaboration Health Research Analysis (2012) showed that in 2009-10 Scotland won £180M (11.5%) of the funds made available by the 12 largest public and charitable funders of medical research in the UK. Sources funding Scottish institutions included the Medical Research Council (£66M), the Wellcome Trust (£46M), Cancer Research-UK (£28M), the British Heart Foundation (£4.8M) and the Arthritis Research Council (£2.6M). By comparison, Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office provided £17.6M.


Thirdly, a potent demonstration of Scotland’s ability to fund biomedical research from non-Scottish sources is provided by the Scottish Senior Clinical Fellowship scheme. This scheme is core-funded by SFC and provides salaries for outstanding young clinical academics on the verge of becoming Principal Investigators. The 18 individuals appointed over the past 5 years have to date secured no less than £68.7M inexternal grant income, only £3.6M of which was from ‘Scotland-only’ sources such as the Chief Scientist Office.


Fourthly, major contributions from UK charities (such as the Wellcome Trust, Wolfson Foundation, CR-UK and British Heart Foundation), UK Research Councils, the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund and other UK sources have allowed major new building projects to enhance Scotland’s five medical schools and provide state of the art researchfacilities. These facilities include the new Beatson Institute and the academic complex on the new Southern General Hospital site in Glasgow, the Queens Medical Research Institute in Edinburgh, and the Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research in Dundee.


If Scotland were to withdraw from the UK and create its own Scottish Research Council our research community would be denied its present ability to win proportionately more grant funding than the country contributes to a common research pool. However, rather than ‘going it alone’ the Scottish Government aspires to join with the remaining UK in creating a common research funding area. Even if this could be negotiated it is highly unlikely that the remaining UK would tolerate  a situation in which an independent ‘competitor’ country won more money than it contributed to drive its research, develop capital projects and infrastructure, and train its research workforce. We regard creation of a post-independence common research area as an undertaking fraught with difficulty and one that is unlikely to come to fruition.


We imagine that UK fund-raising charities might accept a period of turbulence and financial outlay to develop systemsthat allowed them to continue to fundraise in an independent Scotland and support research there. The situation is radically different for endowed charities such as the Wellcome Trust and the Health Foundation that do not rely on public fundraising. Both of them fund some research in overseas countries but the Wellcome Trust places emphasis on building research capacity in low-and middle-income countries. While the Wellcome Trust does fund some research in the Irish Republic, it insists upon equal partnership with the national Science Foundation and Health Research Board of Ireland. An independent Scotland could possibly negotiate a similar arrangement but it would mean significant Government outlay on research that would otherwise have been funded by the Trust alone if Scotland had remained in the UK.


In the debate about independence it is ironic that Scottish Government is able to speak freely while the heads of our leading research universities (and the umbrella organisation Universities Scotland) and our premier learned society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, have to date felt obliged to remain neutral because they receive Scottish Government funding.  Their silence should not be interpreted as evidence of tacit support for independence on the part of the life sciences research community. We write as individuals with no party-political agenda but with extensive experience of heading world-leading research groups, units and institutes in Scotland, and participating at thehighest level in the work of grant-giving government agencies, UK Research Councils and health-related charities. Growing out of our profound commitment to Scotland are grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly competitive arena of biomedical research. Life sciences research provides thousands of high technology jobs; it is now and can undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of the Scottish economy. We contend that Scotland’s research interests will be much better served by remaining within the common research area called the United Kingdom.





Professor Dario Alessi  PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS


Professor Jean Beggs  CBE, PhD, FRSE, FRS


Professor Colin Bird  CBE, PhD, FRCPath, FMedSci, FRSE


Professor Sir Adrian Bird  CBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS


Sir David Carter  MD, FRCSE, FMedSci, FRSE


Professor John Coggins  OBE, PhD, FRSE


Professor Richard Cogdell   PhD, FRSE, FRS


Professor Sir Philip Cohen  PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS


Professor James Garden  CBE, MD, FRCSE, FRSE


Professor Neva Haites  OBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE


Professor Nicholas Hastie  CBE, PhD, FRSE, FRS


Professor Wilson Sibbett CBE, PhD, FRSE, FRS


Professor Karen Vousden  CBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS


Professor Roland Wolf  OBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE

Blood plasma, privatisation and falling vCJD

The government have announced they will sell 80% of the firm, Plasma Resources UK (PRUK). This firm manages the supply of blood plasma to the NHS, a product that cannot be derived from UK blood donations because of the risk of transmitting vCJD – a disease almost entirely exclusive to the UK, or to people who have lived in the UK.

This has led to some ill-advised headlines claiming the blood donor service will be privatised, criticised rightly by Anthony Cox, that has necessitated a hasty statement from the NHS Blood & Transfusion (NHSBT) service to avoid the risk of a decline in donations.

While it is understandable that those opposed to privatisation would want to protest this, no action seems more spiteful than depriving innocent people of a vital resource, especially as the result of misinformation.

However, although PRUK’s function is to source plasma from outside the UK, this is unlikely always to be so.

Rates of vCJD peaked in 2,000 and the last few years have recorded 0 new cases.

This means, assuming no new cases are recorded, at some point a decision will be made that it is safe to start using plasma from blood donated in the UK.

WIll PRUK, a now privatised firm, then be running part of the UK’s blood donor system?

This will then legitimatise concerns about privatisation of parts of the blood donor service.

I have asked both the Department of Health and NHSBT this question.

NHSBT answered promptly to state that they cannot answer this question as they cannot predict when UK blood plasma might be considered safe.

I am still waiting on a response from the Department of Health.

While I do, you may wish to give blood, especially as I have been unable to do so for some time.

Tests for 5 & 11 year olds – a silly idea

Nick Clegg has proposed testing 5 and 11 year olds to measure the success of schools in reaching arbitrary standards.

There is a considerable problem with this announcement.

Children are not born with adult capabilities, these develop throughout childhood, and, in the early years especially, there are massive changes in ability.

Any given class of school children will vary in age by just under 12 months.

At the age of 5, somebody on the cusp of their 6th birthday will be ~20% more developed on average than somebody just turned 5.

At the age of 11, somebody on the cusp of their 12th birthday will be 8.3% more developed on average than somebody just turned 11.

You expect, on average, younger children to perform less well in tests than older children in the same cohort.

Even if results are averaged across a class, variations in the distribution of ages in a given class will affect this result. 

This advantage narrows as children get older, making tests at later ages progressively fairer in terms of measuring ability, but it seems a profoundly silly thing to do for Primary School age children.




It’s what they really think

George Monbiot has a piece out in The Guardian today railing against libertarian/free market thinktanks that take tobacco money while lobbying for policies that favour tobacco companies. However, I think that Monbiot gets one crucial aspect wrong. The gist of the argument is as follows;

Tobacco companies are not allowed to advertise their products. Nor, as they are so unpopular, can they appeal directly to the public. So they spend their cash on astroturfing (fake grassroots campaigns) and front groups. There is plenty of money to be made by people unscrupulous enough to take it.

I don’t think it is helpful to assume bad faith on the behalf of these lobbyists. They appear to genuinely believe in their cause, and it can be argued that they don’t take money to believe in the freedom of tobacco manufacturers to sell more tobacco, but they believe that tobacco manufacturers should have the right to sell more tobacco so they take money from like minded people.

Otherwise it would be relatively trivial for rich activists, such as George, to collectively bung them £40,000 or so to change their minds. If, as he claims,

The institute has almost unrivalled access to the BBC and other media, where it promotes the corporate agenda without ever being asked to disclose its interests.

Then this would be a cost effective method of broadcasting an anti-smoking message using lobbyists for hire.

I would be extremely surprised if pro-tobacco lobbyists changed their positions in response.

Of course most of their arguments are hypocritical, damaging and rely on ignoring evidence, so should be opposed on these grounds alone.

But we should at least assume they are sincere.



Should a criticism be listened to if it is dishonest or ignorant?

Should a criticism be listened to if it is dishonest or ignorant?

Establishment journalist, Charles Moore, has a column today criticising the liberal bias and, in his opinion, lack of impartiality at the BBC.

In some respects his criticisms have merit, the idea that we can leave our biases behind and be wholly impartial when demanded to be wholly impartial is not an idea that has much basis in reality.

Indeed, much of the methodology of science and medicine requires as many biases as possible to be accounted for and reduced by blinding, if not eliminated entirely.

The assumption that journalists, whose methodologies cannot possibly be blinded, can operate without bias is not a sound basis on which to make decisions about the politics of journalists you wish to recruit.

However, bias is one thing, that can be accounted for, lying, deliberate misrepresentation or ignorance are worse traits in journalism, these suggest an attempt to deceive or a crucial failure of understanding that renders any argument or presentation so untrustworthy as to be useless.

Unfortunately for his argument, Charles Moore does at least one of the above.

On the Today programme yesterday, for example, it was reported that the Government has decided to delay any action to ban cigarette brand packaging. The official view was duly represented by a Tory backbencher, Mark Field. The banning enthusiasts were represented by Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK. Mr Kumar made some pretty extreme assertions, such as that the tobacco industry was “entirely dependent on recruiting children” to addiction. This was unchallenged by James Naughtie.

As CRUK’s own figures show, 80% of smokers start before they are 18, while they are, legally, children.

Further to this, the numbers of children under 16 smoking has risen from 157,000-200,000 in the last year.

Mr Kumar’s ‘assertions’ were a simple stating of the research literature.

Mr Moore is either unaware of this, or choosing to ignore it, and this unfortunately damages whatever good points he might make. He is either dishonest, or ignorant, whether unwittingly or deliberately.

Why then should we listen to him?