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Could the pandemic renew public trust in science?

Science skepticism is declining for the first time in years. Here’s what that could mean for the future.

Could the pandemic renew public trust in science?

Science skepticism is declining for the first time in years. Here’s what that could mean for the future.
By WP BrandStudio

Coronavirus. PPE. Antiviral medication. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, billions of people around the world have become immersed in a new vocabulary as they watch the scientific process play out in real-time. And a new survey from 3M suggests that this experience may have fundamentally changed the way citizens view science.

The results from 3M’s most recent State of Science Index Survey offer a glimpse into how the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives has bolstered public faith in science for the first time in years. Skepticism had been steadily increasing prior to the spread of Covid-19, according to previous surveys from 3M; in 2019, over a third of Americans were distrustful of science. But that skepticism is now declining, and survey respondents from around the globe believe following scientific advice is crucial to containing the spread of the virus.

“We weren’t sure how it would go,” said Dr. Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M, admitting uncertainty about how the pandemic might affect people’s attitudes. In her role, which is to advocate for science and to help people understand the extent to which it shapes daily life, Seth has seen science skepticism spread throughout the U.S. over the past few years. But new data from the State of Science Index Surveys indicate that that’s changed in the past eight months.

“The results clearly indicate that, for the first time in years, science skepticism dropped,” Seth said, “and trust went up.”

An unexpected shift in public perception

3M believes that science should matter to everyone, because it impacts every person’s future and quality of life, and they wanted to see if the general public believed this as well. So they commissioned their first State of Science Index Survey in 2018; it was fielded by an independent, global research firm and surveyed about 14,000 respondents across 14 countries.

That first survey demonstrated that many people didn’t believe science mattered, with four out of 10 respondents in the initial survey saying their lives wouldn’t be particularly different if science didn’t exist.

“I was shocked when I first saw that initial data, because when you’re conducting science, you don’t necessarily realize where public opinion is,” said Seth, whose role as chief science advocate was created in direct response to the results of the first State of Science Index survey. “When you see data like that, the reality hits you. You go: ‘Wow. We have a lot of work to do.’”

This year, 3M was able to provide a unique snapshot of how the pandemic has shifted public views of science through two surveys: one that was conducted before the coronavirus spread and one that was conducted after.

In October 2019, just before the pandemic began to take hold, 3M completed its third annual State of Science Index Survey. They asked a series of questions to another 14,000 people across 14 countries, aiming to build on the prior three years of tracking perceptions of science. It found that skepticism was still on the rise and that more than 40% of respondents said they only trusted science that aligned with their own beliefs.

Then with the onset of Covid-19, the company saw an opportunity to gather insight on how a major scientific event like the pandemic might change people’s opinions—for better or worse. So they conducted a follow-up survey of over 11,000 people across 11 countries, dubbed the “Pandemic Pulse,” which began in July–six months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global health crisis.[1]

Based on that second survey, it’s clear the pandemic’s impact on daily life deepened faith in science. Immediately prior to the spread of Covid-19, 35% of respondents said they were skeptical of science. By the summer of 2020, only 28% expressed that view, and 86% of respondents indicated they trusted scientists, compared with just 80% in the months before.

That increase in trust has practical implications for the current moment. Nearly 80% of respondents said they’re more likely to agree that science plays a role in solving public health crises and that it needs more funding—a critical belief as billions of dollars are being funneled toward pandemic research.

Although the latest survey did not set out to measure the specific factors driving these changes, Seth believes there are several key reasons why people are getting more trustful of the scientific community and more open to the idea of hearing from them.

One is the newfound awareness of individual scientists and specific scientific entities, which have been “thrown onto the global stage for the first time,” said Seth. U.S. search engine inquiries for the World Health Organization and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention jumped by 90% and 95% respectively, between February and March, as reports about Covid-19 became front-page.[2],[3]

Perhaps even more important, however, is that the average person is feeling the necessity and urgency of science in a way they haven’t needed to in the past, Seth said.

“We’re all facing the same existential threat,” she said, referencing the pandemic. “We’re hoping that science will lead us out of it.”

Building on momentum

While scientists like Seth may be heartened by growing public trust in science, they caution there is work left to be done. Approximately 32% of respondents in the latest State of Science Index Survey said they still don’t believe their everyday lives would be all that different if science did not exist at all. And despite the pandemic’s impact on how we do everything from working to eating and going to school, 63% of respondents said they still rarely think about the importance of science.

Seth believes that context is essential in advocating for science and helping the average person understand exactly how much it affects them. Scientists and researchers can’t simply say: Here is what we have learned or are attempting to learn. They must also say: Here is why that matters to your life and the lives of those around you.

The survey findings from 3M suggest that a growing number of people around the world are starting to grasp that connection. The challenge for the scientific community is to build on that progress even after the pandemic ends, so that scientists are able to tackle other challenges that impact daily life every bit as much as Covid-19, such as global hunger and climate change.

The public is ready to see scientists solve these issues, as well. Nearly half of all 2020 SOSI Survey respondents said they want scientists to address climate change and and 67% said they believe that continued science skepticism could have a negative environmental impact. Respondents also acknowledged the importance of continuing to grow the scientific community and of encouraging more people to join the movement to solve these issues. 74% said they believed “the world needs more people pursuing STEM-related careers to benefit society’s future.”

Fortunately, maintaining public faith in science can often be straightforward, according to Seth–and it happens largely through communication. She spends much of her time talking to children and young adults about the crucial role scientific innovation plays in solving the world’s biggest problems, and she encourages fellow scientists to be equally vocal about the value of the work they do.

Continuing these conversations, she said, are the key to helping people see what science really means for them.

“We have to focus on the human context of science,” Seth said. “We have to say: This is how this data or solution impacts life. This is how it improves life. And this is what it means to each and every one of us.”

3M’s State of Science Index Survey seeks to measure and explain how Americans think and feel about science. Read more about the 2020 results here.

This content is paid for by an advertiser and published by WP BrandStudio. The Washington Post newsroom was not involved in the creation of this content. Learn more about WP BrandStudio.





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