Brussels, 30 Mar 2005
The Swedes have turned the tables in the science and society debate by asking researchers how they view the public and, most tellingly, how they see their own kind – researchers at universities are confident that the public trusts them, but those working for companies are less sure. Another study asks teachers what they think about scientists.
Vetenskap och Allmänhet (VA) – a Swedish association set up to promote dialogues, openness and understanding between the public, especially the young, and researchers – has published two studies gauging perceptions of science by different actors in the scientific and education communities. The surveys were made available at the recent Science in Society Forum, hosted by the European Commission in Brussels.
The first, published in late 2003, asked scientists and researchers themselves how they see their profession and explores their view of public attitudes to their work. In the second, completed in 2004, it is the turn of teachers to offer their opinions of science and researchers. Both can be found in English on the VA (Public and Science) website and both contain some unexpected surprises.
The purpose of the studies, according to VA, is to help guide programmes aimed at strengthening dialogue between researchers and the public and to create broader commitment to knowledge and learning. "Science generates new knowledge," VA's Secretary-General Camilla Modéer says in her foreword. "But knowledge will not become active without gaining the support of ordinary people, in their wishes, thoughts, ideas and feelings."
Asking some four hundred Swedish professors, students, lecturers, and university and company researchers, VA's 'How researchers view public and science' report concludes that many researchers doubt the public is really interested in research. Half of those surveyed think the general public does not see the importance of funding research, nor show that much interest in their scientific disciplines.
Yet despite this, the researchers feel that people trust them – only 5% saying that their work has not earned public confidence – and enjoy interacting with society at large. Indeed, 80% of the respondents think public dialogue on scientific matters is an obligation and that it provides new perspective on their own research. But, surprisingly, only 36% admit to having actually followed this up.
Interest in science up among schoolchildren
Almost 90% of those surveyed say they have "very great or great trust" in university-based researchers, which drops to 68% for company researchers. Only 45% said they have faith in journalists working for broadsheet newspapers, even less for the tabloids (21%). The researchers believe the public "greatly trusts" university science (75%) but not so for researchers at companies (26%).
In the second study, the majority of teachers, principals and teaching students interviewed say they regard medicine as the most scientific field in a long list of alternatives offered. One in five think astrology is a science, which even exceeds the general public's response to this question. Teachers stress the importance of knowledge-seeking and questioning sources. And around 75% of them feel science and research is often too abstract to fit into school curricula.
Many of those surveyed value the use of scientific findings in their field as class material, but nearly one-third believe you can still be a good teacher without the latest research. The Swedish survey's big turn-up – bucking trends elsewhere – is that one in two respondents note increased interest in science in their schools, especially pre-schools. And the majority feel that school administrators and teachers "bear the greatest responsibility for putting new knowledge to use".