Lara Clements interview: How has Covid-19 affected people’s trust in science?

Exclusive interview: Lara Clements on the latest Wellcome Global Monitor report, the world’s largest study into how people think and feel about science.

Lara ClementsLara Clements, Associate Director of Public Engagement and Campaigns at the global charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust, is one of the authors of the ‘Wellcome Global Monitor report’ on how Covid-19 has affected people’s lives and views about science. The study published on 29 November 2021 is the largest of its kind, surveying over 119,000 people in 113 countries and territories.

What was the rationale for conducting this global survey?

Lara Clements: There are very few global studies that look at public attitudes towards science. We are running the Wellcome Global Monitor survey every other year to create a large and robust dataset that amplifies the voice of the public in different demographic groups and contexts.

Often, assessments of trust in science rely on research carried out in a very small group of unrepresentative countries. The Global Monitor allows us to broaden that out; it helps us to improve public engagement practice, by informing researchers of the social and cultural context around their work, and steer research funding strategies.

All the data is published under open access with the hope that it will stimulate deeper and more localised research in this area as we saw following publication of our 2018 report. The 2020 report offers a unique snapshot within the context of a pandemic, a time when trust in science is so important.

What were the most important findings? Why?

Lara Clements: The survey was carried out between August 2020 and February 2021, when Covid-19 cases were surging in many regions and vaccines were still going through trials. It was really encouraging to see that trust in science and scientists rose during this period, particularly among those who have less confidence in their scientific knowledge. I don’t think this was surprising. People were more exposed to science and could see how it was relevant to them and how they might benefit from it.

However, there are still some really important trust gaps that we haven’t fully understood yet. For example in sub-Saharan Africa we saw trust in science falling significantly. It is important to understand what is driving this trend, because it is so intrinsic to the success of public health. And, while we need to improve equitable access to public health interventions, we also need to ensure that communities are open to these interventions. It will be interesting to explore how these trust gaps affect the delivery of equitable health care.

I was also very interested to see that among people in high income regions, traditionally donors of international aid, there is a high level of agreement that their government should spend money helping other countries to prevent and cure disease. I wondered whether that would shift during a pandemic, but it is heartening for the future to think that we are willing to combat epidemics wherever they start.

The report also highlights the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on low-income countries and on people with low incomes across all countries. Among adult respondents in low and lower middle income countries, 45% said they had lost a business or a job as a result of the pandemic. This is not really surprising because there are fewer safety nets in some of these countries, but thinking about that more broadly there is a really uneven impact on livelihoods, particularly when you consider the other burdens many face in terms of access to healthcare and being at the forefront of the climate crisis.

What does the report tell us about the situation in Europe?

Lara Clements: I can’t comment on country-specific data, but interestingly we did see a marked increase in trust in science in Eastern Europe compared to 2018, from 25% of people who answered they have ‘a lot of trust in science’ to 36%. A similar increase was seen in Western Europe, but we were starting from a higher base figure, 50% in 2018 to 59% in 2020.

It is very hard to draw conclusions about the reasons behind this from the data set.

What findings are you keen to follow up on?

Lara Clements: It is worth pointing out that the 2018 report showed how trust is influenced by a wide range of factors; levels of perceived science education, confidence in government, the military and judicial systems, living in a rural or urban setting, access to the internet, perceived income inequality are among the many factors we identified to be linked to trust in science.

More economically unequal societies tended to have lower levels of trust, which is really interesting when we think about inequality and how it has become more stark in the pandemic. We are keen to do more research on how global cooperation can help bridge the divide between different countries. Countries that cannot afford their own diagnostics, vaccines and treatments need multilateral action, and the results of the Global Monitor show that there is a willingness from people in traditionally donor countries to tackle this by spending more on pandemic preparedness and international action.

One of the key findings in the 2018 report was that more than three-quarters of the world’s population agree that vaccines are safe and effective. The 2020 report did not include a question about vaccines, which would have been fascinating. Hopefully we will put that back into the next report. We are also keen to get some steers on the climate crisis to try and understand people’s lived experience of changes in climate and health.

Trust in science is really important and these reports help us to think about how science can be made more trustworthy and the importance of the narrative we create for the public around science. The Wellcome Trust has a long-standing public engagement commitment and has carried out a series of strategic initiatives around public engagement with science over the last 20 years. Our current work in this area is focusing on mental health, infectious disease, climate change and discovery research.

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