Public trust that scientists work for the good of society is growing

But public confidence falters on questions of scientific transparency and integrity


CONFIDENCE BUILDING  A new study by the Pew Research Center shows a positive trend in the public belief that scientists generally mean well, but wariness over questions of scientific integrity, transparency and bias.

Skynesher/Getty Images Plus

These days, it can seem as if science is under assault. Climatologists are routinely questioned about what’s really causing global warming. Doctors can be disparaged for trying to vaccinate children against disease.

But for the U.S. public at large, scientists are generally seen as a trustworthy bunch. In fact, 86 percent of Americans hold at least “a fair amount” of confidence that scientists work for the public good,  according to a survey released August 2 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

That’s far better than how respondents felt about what motivates politicians (only 35 percent said they were fairly confident that elected officials acted in the public interest), journalists (47 percent) or even religious leaders (57 percent). And that general trust in the goodwill of scientists has grown steadily over the last four years, from 76 percent in 2016.

But confidence falters on narrower questions of scientists’ trustworthiness. For instance:

  • The kind of scientist matters. Nearly half — 48 percent — thought doctors gave fair and accurate information, but only 32 percent thought the same of medical researchers. Dieticians also were considered trustworthy by 47 percent of respondents, while that number fell to 24 percent for nutrition scientists. Overall, scientists whose work involved engaging with the public tended to be more trusted than those focused on research;
  • How research is funded matters. More than half of respondents — 58 percent — said they are less trusting of studies financed by industry. And there’s skepticism that scientists reveal all of their industry ties: Fewer than 2 in 10 people thought scientists always disclosed conflicts of interest with industry, or faced stern consequences for failing to do so;
  • Sometimes, who is being asked matters. On questions of scientific misconduct, black and Hispanic respondents were more likely than whites to see it as a “big problem.” That could reflect wariness due to past cases of experiments being conducted without patients’ consent, such as the decades-long Tuskegee Study in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were denied treatment (SN: 3/1/75, p. 134), the Pew report notes. Or it could reflect the fact that, when it comes to environmental justice, these communities are often more likely to be affected by unchecked pollution (SN: 12/6/97, p. 366).

“The issue of trust in scientists is part of a broader conversation that society is having on the role and value of experts,” says Cary Funk, the director of Pew’s science and society research. “What we wanted to do was get a look at the potential sources of mistrust.”

Conducted from January 7 to January 21, the survey questioned 4,464 randomly selected adults who are demographically representative of the U.S. population, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points. It focused on three scientific fields: medicine, nutrition and environment. But it did not look at specific topics that have become highly politicized, for example, childhood vaccination campaigns (SN: 6/8/19, p. 16) or climate change (SN Online: 7/28/17).

The growing trust in scientists is “really great to see,” says Jacob Carter, a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. But the fact that so few people had faith in scientific transparency and accountability was “a bit disheartening to me as a scientist,” he says. There are systems in place to prevent scientific misconduct and penalties “if, for example, you’re caught plagiarizing or fabricating results,” he says.

The introduction in March of congressional legislation called the Scientific Integrity Act marks a positive step toward building public trust in science, Carter says. The bill aims to prevent political interference in scientific policy and to allow government scientists to share research with the public, among other things.

The survey also found that 60 percent of Americans believes scientists deserve a place in debates over crafting science policy — though that result reveals a partisan divide. Among Democrats, 73 percent wanted scientists at the table in policy discussions, but that fell to 43 percent among Republicans.

Still, those numbers are encouraging, especially in a national survey covering all 50 U.S. states, says Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Empowering scientists to step into these [policy] arenas is great,” he says. “Certain kinds of advocacy, I would argue, are part of their responsibility: advocacy for facts, empirical evidence, solid methodologies.”

Overall, scientists have been more willing to step into the public arena in recent years. Thousands of scientists and science advocates joined the first annual March for Science in 2017 in Washington, D.C. (SN Online: 4/22/17). Journalists have become more interested in covering science stories, and social media is carrying messages further across society. Boykoff noted that younger scientists especially have been open to speaking about their work, which has helped to make science more accessible to the public.

And, in fact, the survey found that people overall were more trusting of research in areas that they were more familiar with. Two other key factors boosted confidence, too: whether research data was made publicly accessible and whether findings were reviewed by scientific peers.

“Trust is important to legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness,” Boykoff says. “Without trust, scientists would just be screaming into the wind.”

About Katy Daigle

Katy Daigle was the deputy news editor at Science News from 2018 to 2020.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society