Cary Funk: “It is important to engage with people who have a low level of trust in scientists”

Cary Funk from Pew Research Center talks about the impact of people’s ideology and education on their trust in scientists, medical treatments and vaccines, and how science communication can overcome this.

Cary Funk profile pictureCary Funk is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center, where she leads the Center’s efforts to understand the implications of science for society. Center studies look at the social, ethical and policy implications of scientific developments in areas such as climate and energy, emerging issues in genetic engineering, and food and space science. She has authored or co-authored a number of reports focused on public trust in science, scientific experts and science news and information.

What are the main findings of your survey?

Cary Funk: This is our first major international study that looks at the place of science in society. We asked 20 publics across the globe about their degree of trust in different groups to do what is right on behalf of the country or the general public. We found that, typically, trust in scientists is higher than that of other groups, particularly that for the government or the news media or business leaders. It is almost on par with their trust in the military. One of the findings from the survey that may surprise people is that across many publics, people who identify as being on the political left are more likely to be trusting of scientists than those on the right. Differences are most pronounced in the US, where 62 % of left-leaning respondents have a high level of trust in scientists, as opposed to 20 % of right-leaning respondents. In Canada, 74 % of left-leaning respondents have a high level of trust in scientists, while 35 % of right-leaning respondents do. But the difference is also noticeable in the UK, Spain and Sweden.

Cary Funk interview: Relatively high trust in the military, scientists across surveyed publics

illustration © Pew Research Center

Does the public have greater trust in scientists or practitioners?

Cary Funk: One thing we asked people was to make a choice when it comes to solving problems in society would it be better to rely on people who have practical experience but don’t have a lot of expertise, or would it be better to rely on people who were experts in the problem area, even if they don’t have a lot of practical experience? What we found there is that across all publics, there is a tendency for people to say that practical experience would be better, as the median of 66 % in favour of this segment shows. By contrast, only 28 % trust experts without practical experience. This is not particularly connected with people’s ideology, but just a strong preference for people with practical experience for solving problems. This tells the scientific community that expertise is not enough to convince the public.

Is there any way to overcome this gap between experts and practitioners?

Cary Funk: Many scientific experts do have practical experience, but perhaps that experience is not as visible. A takeaway for the scientific community is to think more broadly about how they can help foster trust between the public and the scientific community. These findings show people value practical experience, which suggests that finding ways to point to both expertise and experience could be helpful. And, we know from other studies that trust in science has multiple dimensions, therefore taking a broader look at these dimensions could also be useful.

In many places, modest differences by ideology in views of scientists’ judgments, value of experts

illustration © Pew Research Center

What role does education play in the public’s perception of scientists?

Cary Funk: In some cases, we do see differences linked to education, including how much science training people have had. In some 70 % of the publics, people with higher education express higher trust in scientists. In Canada, 54 % of the people with post-secondary education have a high level of trust in scientists, whereas only 33 % of the people with lower levels of education do so. We see similar differences in the US, the UK, Germany and Sweden. In some places, people who take three or more science courses after their postsecondary education have higher levels of trust, too.

You carried out the survey before the pandemic. What has changed since?

Cary Funk: In the US, we had a brief time of public consensus around handling the pandemic at the beginning in March. The general public thought that these unprecedented measures put in place to shut down schools and businesses were necessary. But 4 to 6 weeks after that, we started to see political divisions emerge around the handling of the outbreak. Since then, those divisions have grown around every aspect of the outbreak. Different places are no doubt experiencing this in different ways, but it is an illustration of how you can have a politicised conversation around scientific developments, and one of the most striking findings in the US is that Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to call the coronavirus outbreak a major threat to public health.

How do the publics rate their medical treatments?

Cary Funk: Medical systems in so many places have been put to the test because of the coronavirus. We asked people for their opinions on the state of their medical treatments. Most people find that the medical treatments in their location are either the best in the world or above average compared with other places. The median positive rating of medical treatments was 59 %. Ratings were highest in Asia, though, in South Korea and Taiwan, 80 % of the participants rated their countries’ medical treatments highly, whereas in Poland, only 13 % rated them equally high.

Would you expect this to have changed now that we are in the middle of the pandemic?

Cary Funk: That is a difficult question to answer. In some ways, scientists and scientific research have greater prominence today because of the pandemic. Scientists are also often intertwined with government response to the handling of the pandemic, and tied in with that is how medical systems have handled the influx of patients. So one might expect people’s ratings to vary depending on, of course, the pandemic in their country or location. In the US, we do know that we’re seeing very high ratings of how well hospitals and medical systems have handled the coronavirus outbreak. That rating has stayed high over the past six, seven months.

Connected to that is the more controversial question about childhood vaccines.

Cary Funk: Yes, so our survey looks at people’s beliefs around the health benefits and the potential side effects of childhood vaccines, such as the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. What is interesting about looking at public opinion in this area is that we usually use a majority as a way to gauge whether there is strong support for an idea. But, when it comes to vaccines, a smaller share can have a significant impact on public health. The overall majority says that childhood vaccines do offer high preventive health benefits. But the number of places where people say so is smaller. Ratings are particularly high in Sweden and Spain. In Germany, about 75 % of the public rated childhood vaccines as beneficial. But the ratings are lower in Italy, where only about 60 % say childhood vaccines have high preventive health benefits.

In most places surveyed, majorities see preventive health benefits in childhood vaccines

illustration © Pew Research Center

What can we infer from this about the acceptance of a potential Sars-CoV-2 vaccine?

Cary Funk: We need to determine the degree to which people have generalised views about vaccines and their potential risks and benefits. So, we will need more data to really answer that question. One way to think of it is that there could be a factor in perception that is common to vaccines, while there may be other factors that are specific to the development of the coronavirus vaccine.

What finding worries you most?

Cary Funk: I think the patterns we uncovered in this survey show a more politicised conversation about the place of scientists in society, and this is most challenging for the scientific community. Speaking of the public engagement with scientists, we need to address lower levels of trust among some segments of the public. When you have a more polarised conversation, you often have a more difficult time finding common ground. These findings help show where the divides are over the place of science in society and areas where common values can help build common ground. One area where we see strong agreement, for example, is over the value of government investment in scientific research.

Large majorities say government investment in science is worthwhile

illustration © Pew Research Center

What could the media take away from your survey?

Cary Funk: Views about the media’s science coverage are mostly positive, as a median of 68 % across the globe says the media does a good job in covering science. By contrast, only 28 % believe the media does a bad job doing so. But ratings are generally lower in the US and in Spain, where only about 50 % believe the media covers science adequately. About half or more say that the media oversimplifying science research is a problem for news reports in roughly 10 of the 20 publics surveyed. Our data can help you see where exactly the segments of the public with lower levels of trust are located. It is important to engage with and communicate with people who have a low level of trust in scientists if you want to build a broader audience that is receptive to scientific findings.

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