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Between truth and trust – young and established scientists discuss public trust in research

The panelists Brian Schmidt, María Miserendino, Antje Boetius, Sophie Gutenthaler, Venki Ramakrishnan & moderator Adam Smith discuss public trust in Science, trust in Chemistry during the 71 st Lindau Nobel laureate meeting in Germany in May.

The pandemic has changed a lot in our society, including the perception of science by the general public, politicians and governments.

The general media has increasingly covered science news during the rise of the health crisis. Shortly after the start of the coronavirus outbreak, public confidence in scientists increased according to a May 2020 survey. However, a new survey from February 2022 finds that current approval of scientists has now fallen below where it was in January 2019, before the emergence of the coronavirus.

The burning issue of public trust in science in pandemic times was the topic of one of the first discussions at the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in June. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are annual scientific conferences that have been held in Lindau, Bavaria, Germany, since 1951. Their aim is to bring together Nobel laureates and young scientists to foster scientific exchange between different generations.

What do we try to achieve when we talk about trust in science? That was the question moderator Adam Smith of Nobel Prize Outreach asked to kick-start the discussion, which brought together Nobel laureates Venki Ramakrishnan (Chemistry, 2009) and Brian P. Schmidt (Physics, 2011); as well as Prof. Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research; Sophie Gutenthaler, a PhD student in bioinorganic chemistry at LMU Munich; and María Clara Miserendino, a Lindau young scientist from the National University of Córdoba, Argentina.

Nobel laureate Prof. Dr. Benjamin List (Chemistry, 2021): “Humanity should have confidence in science. The work of scientists is what helps our species to develop and solve the challenges of our times. How would we face climate change, hunger and pandemics, just to name a few examples, without the help of scientists?”Read Benjamin List’s full interview
Photo Henning Kretschmer/Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

Prof. List participated in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, although not in the discussion on trust in science. Prof. List and young scientist Sophie Gutenthaler answered the same set of questions for the European Science-Media Hub on trust in science, confronting misinformation and prejudices towards chemistry, and communicating scientific results.

Sophie Gutenthaler underlined that trust is something everyone encounters every day. She gave a simple example: she took the bus in the morning and she trusted the bus driver to do his job in the best way. “The same thing is true for scientists. We all need to trust scientists, whether we are others doing science or members of society as a whole, although it is sometimes hard for the public to decide who is a good scientist or who is bending the rules”.

The need to better communicate research

Sophie Gutenthaler, a PhD student in bioinorganic chemistry at LMU Munich: “Without trust in science, scientists and the scientific process itself, the research that is done cannot be effectively used for the public and therefore does not benefit people in the way it should.”
Read Sophie Gutenthaler’s full interview

She has no doubts that the pandemic has changed the way the public feels about science. Although the voices of critics and conspiracy theorists have been much louder during the health crisis, Gutenthaler has recently seen much more trust in research. However, she emphasises the need to better communicate research achievements.

“I would say the key is education, so that you start educating people at school on how the scientific process works,” she argued during the discussion. “Obviously, someday people leave school, [and that is why] it is important to have meeting points where the general public can meet actual scientists […] and see that they are real people and can make mistakes”.

Prof. Benjamin List: “I do believe in the power of truth, and I do believe that we as scientific community have to be convincing in what we are doing. We have to explain things properly and speak openly about our work. Transparency is the key, in my opinion. […] We are all responsible for confronting misinformation. That means the media, governments, society and, of course, scientists. We want our children to grow up as well-informed people who can make decisions based on well-founded opinions […]”.

Dealing with uncertainties – more from the discussion in Lindau

“For trust, you need relationships and you need experience, you need rules, transparency of methods and benefits for those that engage with each other”, said panellist Prof. Antje Boetius during the discussion in Lindau. She emphasised that scientists work very hard to build one type of method, a kind of framework within which they can work globally, inclusively and in a non-discriminatory way, and also make sure that their achievements are shared.

Prof. Boetius raised the issue of trust in scientific achievements during pandemic times. “The pandemic was the time of sharing knowledge very fast. This was important because we didn’t understand the virus at first”. She emphasised that now that the emergency is not at its height, the scientific community should discuss whether it make sense to continue sharing every result without peer-review, making it available and dealing with changes later. One possible way to accelerate the process of sharing knowledge could be a faster peer review, she said.

“I think the public is not used to uncertainties. Scientists live with uncertainty all the time, especially at the frontiers of research. That is the most important thing we have to convey to the public – that just because things are uncertain it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act”, Dr. Venki Ramakrishnan said during the discussion in Lindau.

Related content:
Sophie Gutenthaler: “Understanding a process is the key to not being afraid or suspicious of it”
Prof. Benjamin List: “Communicating science accurately is vital – otherwise we will never achieve trust in science”

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