The Public’s Trust in Scientists Rises, Pew Poll Shows
The Public’s Trust in Scientists Rises, Pew Poll Shows

The Public’s Trust in Scientists Rises, Pew Poll Shows

Despite growing support, respondents still have concerns when it comes to scientific transparency and integrity.

Aug 5, 2019
Ashley Yeager

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Public trust in science rose in recent years, a new survey shows: 86 percent of Americans say that they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest, up from 78 percent in 2016.

“As a scientist, I’m pretty cheerful about that,” Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University who studies trust and was not involved with the survey, tells The Washington Post. The results show scientists now rank slightly ahead of military leaders and well above religious heads, journalists, and business executives when it comes to trust.

The Pew Research Center conducted the survey in January 2019, asking randomly selected adults living across the 50 US states to take a self-administered web-based survey: 4,464 individuals participated.

The results showed that faith in scientists often depends on the researchers’ line of work. “Trusting a group or profession comes from thinking about what their intentions and motives are,” Fiske says. “The motive of the research scientist can be murky. But with a doctor, you assume [the motive] is to help people.” 

For example, survey respondents said that 47 percent of dietitians provide accurate information about nutrition recommendations all or most of the time while only 24 percent of nutrition scientists were thought to be honest when discussing their research. Medical doctors also appeared more trustworthy to the participants, with 48 percent believing they offer sound recommendations versus only 32 percent for medical research scientists. 

Race was also a factor in trust, specifically for medical scientists: African Americans and Hispanics were more skeptical than whites of these researchers.

Scientists’ transparency is one of the major issues preventing trust. Fewer than 20 percent of respondents said scientists are open and honest about potential conflicts of interest with industry all or most of the time, and survey participants also had doubts that scientists regularly admit their mistakes. “When you look at issues of scientific integrity, we see widespread skepticism,” Cary Funk, director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center and a coauthor of the report, tells NPR.

Perhaps the most promising step scientists have taken is to enter the public arena and talk about their science, Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells Science News. More early career scientists are engaging with the public about their work and making it accessible to non-scientists, and more scientists are advocating “for facts, empirical evidence, solid methodologies.” Boykoff says. The March for Science events are evidence of such advocacy and a push for accessibility, he notes.

Survey respondents said that they have more confidence in science if the data are made publicly accessible and the findings are peer reviewed. “I think part of what’s going on here,” Fiske tells the Post, “is that the more [people] know, the more they trust.”

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com.