Updates from the field: Public Trust in Science

June 25th, 2015

This post was written by Carlin Hseuh, Project Manager for the World Biotech Tour, and Grace Troxel, Digital Librarian for CAISE. On May 5-6 2015, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences hosted a discussion entitled “Trust and Confidence at the Intersections of the Life Sciences and Society.” The meeting explored what is meant by trust in science, how trust relates to science engagement and communication, and how what we know about public trust in science can be relevant when discussing contemporary and emerging scientific topics such as synthetic biology, vaccines, and breast cancer screening.

What is Trust?

What is trust? How is trust defined, especially as it pertains to science? This was a recurring question throughout the workshop and, as one might expect, a complex one for roundtable participants to address. One idea that presenters at the meeting agreed on is that that trust does not mean “thinking like me.” Cary Funk from the Pew Research Center outlined some common ways of thinking about trust in science: Trust as giving someone the benefit of the doubt, trust as a relationship among people that involves risk and uncertainty, and trust as accepting the credibility of a source of information. Jim Grunig, a professor at the University of Maryland, expanded upon this characterization, identifying three key dimensions of trust–integrity, dependability, and competence. Grunig also pointed out that trust and distrust are not just opposites, but different concepts altogether. Distrust is associated with perceptions of lack of credibility and malevolence. As such, once trust is lost, it can be extremely difficult to regain.

Trust and Culture

Trust and distrust in science often have a cultural component, which was a theme that several roundtable presenters chose to explore. Timothy Caulfield from the University of Alberta cautioned that views on hot-button scientific issues (such as vaccines, genetically modified organisms, or climate change) are often linked to what he called self-expression. The result is often resistance to change, because new facts can be perceived as a threat to one’s identity, and implies that top-down methods of science communication are likely to be unsuccessful. Presenters agreed that even when trust in science has been lost, there is always the possibility to rebuild relationships and develop successful channels of communication. Phyllis Pettit Nassi, a geologist of Cherokee descent, explained the history of Native American relationships with the United States government. Historical abuses led to a distrust of federally-funded scientific research, even though scientific ideas and observations are entwined in Native American cultures. Nassi identified strategies for successful collaboration, which include taking the time to understand the culture and values of the group that one is trying to reach, building authentic relationships that “go the distance,” being transparent about all parts of the process, and establishing a two-way dialogue that respects different perspectives and involves everyone in the research process. These strategies are aligned with best practices identified by the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning program-funded Cosmic Serpent project, which focuses on building collaboration between indigenous groups and science museums.

The Role of the Media

One overarching takeaway from the roundtable was that while people tend to report trusting science in general, there is a human element that causes suspicion and doubt with regard to some specific scientific findings. This is partially the result of the relationship between science and the media. The public’s trust in science is informed by what they hear and read in the media, which can be a valuable mechanism for communicating the implications and relevance of research to the public. However, the professional incentives for journalists and scientists, such as the need for “buzz” or the desire for acclaim, have sometimes tainted the public’s trust in scientific research and those reporting on it. Roundtable presenters agreed that consumers of science news stories sometimes perceive the scientific process as a series of flip-flops with conflicting information, making them think researchers don’t know what they are doing or that they make strong claims too early. There was also an acknowledgement that while scientists have sometimes blamed the media for misrepresenting their discoveries and work, universities often feel pressured to give sensational interpretations of research to receive news coverage. These observations led to a productive conversation about strategies for enhancing understanding between the media and scientific communities about each other’s processes and constraints. Journalists need to understand, for example, that in order to protect intellectual property, scientists are often not transparent about their methodologies and data when reporting their findings. At the same time, scientists need to be sensitive to the fact that journalists are constrained by factors such as tight deadlines and limited staff, and these pressures only increase as journalism trends away from print towards digital content. With regard to trust, however, it is important that the media understand that the idea of presenting multiple perspectives within a story can create a sense of false equivalencies, giving credence to views that are disproportionately in the minority and don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. By better understanding each others needs and challenges, presenters were hopeful that scientists and journalists can develop lasting relationships leading to higher quality science coverage in mainstream media.

Related Resources

Meeting Materials and Presentations

Communication, Public Engagement, Broader Impacts: What Does It All Mean?

Public Engagement On Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): An Update From The Field

CAISE Perspectives Blog on Science of Science Communication session at 2014 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival STEM Symposium