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Public trust in scientists varies, depending on the research field

The vital role of scientists in tackling global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pandemics is unquestionable. Their expertise is indispensable, yet public trust in the work of scientists can fluctuate.

A recent study by the University of Amsterdam sheds light on a significant aspect of this dynamic: how trust in scientists can differ vastly based on their field of work.

45 different disciplines

What sets this study apart is its scope. By including 45 different scientific disciplines, the researchers provided a comprehensive picture of public perceptions of scientists ranging from agronomists to zoologists. Participants assessed each type of scientist on the following factors:

  • Competence: The intelligence and expertise attributed to the scientists.
  • Assertiveness: The level of confidence the scientists were perceived to possess.
  • Morality: How just, fair, and ethical the scientists were viewed to be.
  • Warmth: The degree of friendliness and compassion attributed to the scientists.

This multifaceted evaluation enabled the researchers to pinpoint the key elements influencing public trust and, in turn, people’s willingness to accept scientists as key players in addressing complex problems.

Trust in scientists and disparity

The results painted an intriguing picture. Neuroscientists and marine biologists topped the trust rankings, while economists and political scientists received lower scores.

Although the study indicated a general trend of trust towards scientists, the level of trust varied significantly across scientific disciplines.

The weight placed on morality seems to shift depending on the scientist’s field of work. Why is this the case?

The stakes are high

Climate change scientists and those studying social issues are often tackling problems with direct implications for human well-being and societal fairness.

The public may feel that these scientists need not only exceptional skill but also a strong moral compass to ensure their research serves the greater good and avoids unintended negative consequences.

Potential for bias

There’s a possibility that the public perceives fields like climate change or social sciences as more susceptible to personal biases or political agendas influencing research. A strong emphasis on ethical conduct serves as a reassurance that the scientists‘ work is objective.

History as a guide 

History shows us instances where people misused scientific discoveries for harmful ends, such as eugenics and the atomic bomb. This may instill a heightened concern for scientists working with sensitive topics to prioritize morality within their research.

Trust in scientists and its connection to policy

The study’s findings reveal that trust derived from perceived competence and morality directly influences support for scientists’ influence on policymaking.

Policies tackling climate change or social issues involve complex trade-offs with potential far-reaching effects. The public will feel more comfortable entrusting such decisions to advisors they believe are both intelligent and morally sound.

Moreover, when the public sees scientists as morally driven, they’re more likely to believe that these experts put the interests of society and the planet ahead of personal gains or political pressures.

Trusting that scientists operate under ethical standards creates a sense of accountability for how their insights and expertise are ultimately used within the policy realm.

Why public’s trust in scientists matters

Understanding why some people trust scientists more than others is a key factor in solving social problems with science. This trust, or lack of it, has real-world consequences. A public that trusts and respects its scientists is more likely to:

  • Embrace science-based solutions: Solutions to challenges like pandemics and environmental threats often require changes in individual behavior and public policy. This is only possible when people believe in the science behind those solutions.
  • Support funding for research: Sustained scientific progress relies on public support for funding vital research and development.
  • Collaborate actively with scientists: In some areas like citizen science, public participation is crucial for gathering data and implementing scientific solutions. Trust fosters a collaborative spirit.

This study provides a valuable compass for the scientific community. There’s a clear need to foster a well-rounded public image of scientists, showcasing not only their intellectual prowess but also their dedication to ethical conduct.

Open communication and transparency around scientific processes can further strengthen public trust. “This study is just the beginning. Future research should explore the generalisability of these findings beyond the U.S. context and delve into the causal relationships between trust and other variables,” notes Vukašin Gligorić, the study’s lead author.

“Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the diversity of scientific fields must be taken into account to more precisely map trust, which is important for understanding how scientific solutions can best find their way to policy,” he concluded.

The path to a brighter future depends on a strong partnership between scientists and society, built on a foundation of mutual trust.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.


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