Global poll shows only 18 per cent have high trust in scientists

Based on survey of more than 140,000 people, Wellcome Global Monitor finds affluent respondents are more likely to be positive about science

June 19, 2019
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Fewer than one in five people worldwide have a high level of trust in scientists, according to new research by the Wellcome Trust.

The world’s biggest survey into public attitudes to health and science – the Wellcome Global Monitor – includes polling of more than 140,000 people from more than 140 countries.

While 18 per cent of people have high trust in scientists, 54 per cent have a medium level of trust, 14 per cent have low trust and 13 per cent said they “don’t know”.

A third of people in Northern Europe, Central Asia and Australia and New Zealand have high trust, while it is about one in 10 in Central and South America.

Trust in science and scientists is seen as a key factor in improving health across the world.

“No matter how great your idea, how exciting your new treatment, how robust your science, it must be accepted by the people who stand to benefit from it,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.

The key factors identified as having an impact on people’s trust in scientists are their level of education and their trust in state institutions. Those educated to university level are much more likely to have trust in science.

“We were driven by the belief that people’s trust in and attitude towards science mattered,” said Dr Simon Chaplin, director of culture and society at Wellcome.

“Crucially, trust in science seems to correlate strongly with trust in government, the judiciary and the military and this should be a wake-up call to everyone who likes to think of science as somehow neutral and separate from the societies within which we live.”

More than half the world’s population (57 per cent) don’t think that they know much – if anything – about science, and almost one in five (19 per cent) believe that it does not benefit them personally.

In high-income countries, those who say that they are finding it “difficult to get by” financially are about three times as likely as people who say that they are “living comfortably” to be sceptical about whether science benefits society as a whole, or them personally.

Even when men and women report equal level of science education attainment, men are more likely to claim greater science knowledge, the survey found.

A total of 49 per cent of men said that they knew “some” or “a lot” about science, compared with 38 per cent of women.

This gender gap was biggest in Northern Europe (75 per cent men compared with 58 per cent women) despite it being a region of the world with “one of the highest levels of investment in scientific research”, said Dr Chaplin.

“We have to work harder to make sure that science education, the career structures of science and the research culture itself support gender equality and reflect the demographic make-up of the societies in which we operate,” he added.

“Exclusion and mistrust go hand in hand and they can have disastrous consequences for health.”

nick.mayo@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

The survey was conducted by a foundation that has "usefulness" of science as one of its prime objectives, in particular its applicability in the medical field. It is however dangerous in my opinion to link usefulness to trust, the way it seems to be implied in Jeremy Farrar’s statement: “No matter how great your idea, how exciting your new treatment, how robust your science, it must be accepted by the people who stand to benefit from it”. It is not usefulness, e.g. the occasional new cure or technology, which creates trust. On the contrary: the permanent emphasis on usefulness in the end causes a lack of trust. Scientists feel pressured to make promises they don’t really believe in themselves and that must almost by necessity be disappointed in the majority of cases. Scientists can hardly escape that pressure in the rat race for funding, as even public funding agencies look for some “usefulness”. The demand to deliver is certainly one of the reasons for the current reproducibility crisis in the sciences, not to talk about outright fabrication of results, exacerbating the lack of trust. As an aside: Although the Wellcome study is about the sciences, we should not forget that the “usefulness” perspective further marginalizes any scholarly research that has no “cure” or “technology” to promise: See current developments in Australia, Denmark, Hungary and so on. To create trust, it is necessary but also fully sufficient to perform careful, self-critical and responsible research, which is reliable and ethical, and which is openly communicated to the public according to Einstein’s dictum to do so a simple as possible but not simpler than that. Should a new cure for Malaria or some form of cancer come as a side effect, that is all the better. Stephan Schröder-Köhne, Würzburg, Germany
I wonder how this compares to the respondents' trust in politicians? Or for that matter in actual medics, rather than science as a whole? Too much of what passes as 'research' from the medical profession is a bunch of (sometimes dodgy) statistics, 'likelihoods' of being affected by a given disease and discussion of 'risk factors' without any understanding of underlying causal relationships. That ain't science!

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