Trust in science is critical for future crises – Report
The report, entitled How COVID-19 affected people’s lives and their views about science, indicates that public trust in science and scientists is influenced by a range of factors at individual and country levels. How much people think they know about science, and levels of confidence in national government emerge as important factors that influence trust in science and scientists.
Based in the United Kingdom, the study was conducted as part of the Gallup World Poll. It encompasses results from representative surveys undertaken in late 2020 and early 2021 of more than 119,000 people in 113 countries and territories. About 1,000 people, aged 15 and older, were interviewed per country. It was published in late November 2021.
It asked respondents, inter alia, questions about:
• The impact of the pandemic on their lives;
• Whether they supported their government’s participation in global efforts to prevent future diseases;
• How they viewed their government’s handling of scientific advice around COVID-19; and
• Their levels of trust in science, and to what extent they believed their leaders in the national government valued the opinions and expertise of scientists.
The study found that the effect of the pandemic has been skewed as there were more job and business losses in low- and middle-income countries in comparison with high-income countries.
Increased prominence of scientists
In terms of “trust in and perceived value of science amid COVID-19”, the research revealed that, globally, people were more likely to express a high degree of trust in science and scientists in 2020 than they were in 2018.
“For many people, COVID-19 has highlighted the role of science in fighting disease around the world. Scientists have become more prominent in the media in many countries, providing information and guidance that have affected the day-to-day lives of countless people and ultimately developing vaccines that promise an eventual return to normalcy,” it noted.
Trust in science rose between 2018 and 2020 among those who said they have ‘some’ knowledge of science (39% in 2018 to 48% in 2020) and those who knew ‘not much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about science (25% in 2018 to 33% in 2020). Among those who said they know ‘a lot’ about science, trust rose only to a small extent.
The report points to the first ‘wave’ of the Wellcome Global Monitor, which indicates that public trust in science and scientists is influenced by a myriad variables at individual and country levels.
Major factors include the effect of science education, and how much people think they know about science. The study revealed that in 2020, 63% of people who said they know a lot about science said that they have a lot of trust in scientists compared with 37% of those who said ‘not much’ or ‘nothing at all’ in response to a question on how much they knew about science.
In 2020 trust in scientists increased, possibly due to COVID-19. This is due to the public being closer to the work of scientists tackling the pandemic.
Decreased levels of trust
But an increase in trust has not been ubiquitous: in Sub-Saharan Africa, where trust in science went down between 2018 and 2020, only 19% expressed a high level of trust in scientists, the lowest level in the world. This can be contrasted with 62% in Australia and New Zealand, where trust was highest.
Another important factor affecting trust is how the public perceived their national leadership, challenging the idea that science exists outside a political landscape. In 2020, people who had confidence in their national government were 11 percentage points more likely to trust scientists in their country a lot compared to people who did not have confidence in their national government (44% vs 33%).
Doctors and nurses were most likely to be seen as basing coronavirus-related decisions on scientific advice a lot, compared to the World Health Organization (WHO) or people’s national governments, said the study.
Globally, more than six in 10 people said doctors and nurses based decisions about coronavirus on scientific advice a lot. This figure fell below 50% for the WHO, people’s national government, their friends and family, and religious leaders. However, more than 70% felt that each source – except religious leaders – based these decisions at least somewhat on scientific advice.
Source: Wellcome Global Monitor 2020, p 31.
Globally, only 25% of the public said that their government valued the opinions and expertise of scientists a lot. One in four people worldwide said leaders in their national government placed a lot of value on the opinions and expertise of scientists, though an additional 35% said government leaders placed ‘some’ value on them. Nearly 28% felt their government did not place much or any value on scientists’ opinions.
Fewer than one in five people in Eastern Europe, Northern America and Latin America believed their government leaders valued scientists’ opinions and expertise a lot, while more than 40% said they did not value scientists’ opinions much or at all.
Source: Wellcome Global Monitor 2020, p 35.
In 25 of 113 countries surveyed, people were more likely to say their government leaders placed little to no value on scientists’ opinions than to say leaders placed some or a lot of value on them.
Most people agreed (‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’) that their government should spend money to help countries prevent and cure diseases wherever they occur. But this appears contradictory, according to the report: “The majority also agree that their government should spend money on prevention and cures only if their own people are at risk.”
The report points to regional differences in views about this. “Most South Asian people agree with both statements, while people in East Asia and Northern America are more inclined to agree that their government should spend money to help countries prevent and cure diseases everywhere.”
The importance of government guidelines
It said the COVID-19 crisis had put governments and healthcare systems to the test as they scrambled to limit the spread of the virus and to treat millions. Simultaneously, it had “presented the scientific community with the urgent task of developing reliable diagnostic tests and treatments, as well as safe and effective vaccines that could end the pandemic.
“An equally challenging aspect is that the situation has called for coordinated responses among billions of people to adhere to government guidelines and recognise the importance of their role in managing the threat.”
The report said that “coordination between scientists, healthcare officials and populations – or the lack of it – may have influenced the perceptions of science’s role in combatting diseases in ways that have implications for future outbreaks”.
The study indicates that research on public support for global efforts to prevent and control disease could help leaders “make more informed decisions about contributing to such efforts moving forward”.
It asserts that “understanding how people around the world view science and scientists is critical to efforts to ensure widespread public attention to and compliance with scientific recommendations in future crises”.