Half of the public does not trust research – Survey

Almost one in two members of the public – 46% – agree or strongly agree that research results published by industry or public offices cannot be trusted, according to the latest biennial survey commissioned by the Research Council of Norway.

Two out of five think that the research results reported to a large degree are affected by the researchers’ own attitudes and points of view.

Half think that journalists are only presenting research results that correspond with their own views.

Against this, more than two-thirds think Norway should invest more public funding in research compared to other industrialised countries.

The survey questioned a sample of 2,088 people aged 18-80 in June 2017.

John-Arne Røttingen, director general of the Research Council of Norway, said there is reason to be concerned about what the findings could mean for trust in research and that the issue must be addressed.

“We have to realise that ‘more of the same’ is not enough when meeting the tendencies reported in this survey.”

More must be done to ensure research is communicated on the same level as the public, he said, and to “stimulate critical thinking on sources for information among people”.

The extensive survey of people’s attitudes towards research was carried out by Kantar TNS on behalf of the Research Council of Norway and was presented on 19 September at the opening of “Research Days” (20 September to 1 October) in Oslo, in conjunction with Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten.

Most comments centred on the issue of “fake news” and its impact on people at large in Norway and the need to focus attention on how to address the problem.

This year the survey had three aims, to map out people’s attitudes towards research; find out if there are critical attitudes towards knowledge production and communication; and follow up the place of research from a political perspective.

The results show that four out of five people think that basic research can best contribute to knowledge production in the long run and that this should be funded by public resources and 40% think that business should take a greater responsibility for research.

But 28% agree that there is too much public support for research that never benefits society.

This percentage is higher among those with less education (33%) and is only supported by 15% of those who have a university education.

The support percentage is very high, at 42%, for those who are in agreement with the right-wing populist party, compared with 32% of those supporting the Conservative Party and 26% among Labour supporters.

However, more than two-thirds (68%) agree that Norway should invest more public funding in research compared to other industrialised countries. This percentage is highest among men (76%), lower among women (60%), and higher among those with higher education (84%) and in particular by those with high income (86%).

Other findings included that only one in five respondents say that they are well informed about research. Only one in five think that they will spot if a research news item is false.

The survey includes some disturbing findings:
  • • One in 10 think that it is probable that the authorities are supporting a secret ‘chemtrails’ programme, secretly testing the spraying of chemical and biological agents in the air.

  • • One in three think that there are paranormal phenomena that cannot be explained by science.

  • • One in four say that we will never learn who really were behind the terror attacks in New York on 11 September 2001.
Røttingen said the findings are grounds for a debate in the Norwegian research system. He said that with an ever-increasing amount of information being made available to the public from sources and senders with “varying degrees of credibility”, it is a great challenge for the public to discriminate between true and untrue information – and research does not always produce results that are unambiguous.

He said: “The media have to improve in documenting their sources when presenting information that has its base in research. Researchers have to account for the complexity in their research and they have to distinguish between the role as a researcher and a debate participant.”

Basing decisions on evidence

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and now rector of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, told University World News he did not view questioning of research as negative, since it is natural in a highly educated country – or society of “expert groups” – that it should be critically examined.

But four out of 10 agreeing that research is influenced by the researchers’ own political views and attitudes was worrying, he said.

“In a vital democracy it is important that debates are held on a common platform of facts and evidence. This platform must be built on research that is sound, solid and trustworthy. The present survey tells us that we as researchers might need to sharpen up and be more self-critical.”

He said it is legitimate for researchers to have political views, but these must not be allowed to challenge the objectivity of science.

“As academics and academic institutions, we have a responsibility to re-establish respect for facts and to defend what is the core of a well-functioning democracy: that political decisions and political choices are taken on the basis of facts and evidence, not on dogmas and feelings,” Ottersen said.