Will science activism expand public support or create division?
Science and medicine are widely respected — but opinion is sharply polarized on some issues
Scientists bring credibility to the march. That’s a powerful political resource, especially considering the decline in public confidence in many other sources of authority.
For 40 years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked representative samples of Americans about their confidence in various institutions. Confidence in the scientific community has remained stable, with only recent evidence of a small partisan gap. Public confidence in medicine has declined but isn’t divided by party.
In fact, overall, Americans report considerably higher confidence in the scientific community and medicine than in any other institution named in the survey, barring the military:
At the same time, public opinion about some science-related issues has become more polarized. Climate change is the most glaring example. As Patrick Egan and I outlined in a recent review article, mass opinion about climate change — and about environmental issues more generally — was remarkably unified well into the early 1990s. Once a partisan gap in attitudes emerged, it widened quickly.
Opinion on climate change and the environment is now more divided than on just about any other public issue.
Will other science policy issues be polarized?
The answer may depend, at least in part, on scientists themselves.
In recent decades, science advocacy has focused on promoting the application of science in policymaking on issues, including climate change and the environment. Scientific organizations, professional associations and universities have developed fellowship programs and communication training to help scientists package their work in ways that can inform policy decisions. In fact, this weekend’s march calls for “evidence-based policies” as one of its core principles.
But such an approach could backfire in a politically polarized nation. Scientific certainty does not create certainty about a policy response. Policy decisions are fundamentally about values. Decision-makers’ attitudes about risk, personal liberty, justice and the future all influence how they interpret and apply any evidence, including evidence from science.
While scientists may think of their evidence as nonpartisan, the public may see it differently, especially when politicians, news media and policy stakeholders portray that evidence through the lens of their own values.
Scientific research is still a bipartisan cause
But a different theme has begun to emerge from science advocacy: protecting science itself. Rather than trying to expand the influence of their research, many scientists are now trying to maintain access to the data, funding and agency partners that enable them to investigate scientific questions in the first place.
This appeal to protect scientific research is less likely to divide Americans than messages promoting the use of science in policymaking. Mass organization for the pursuit of science funding may indeed make scientists appear to be an interest group, but that group could be one bound by shared professional and economic interest, rather than shared political ideology.
When science is framed this way, a broad cross section of Americans support it. In 2016, when the GSS asked about support for national spending on more than 20 different spending targets, opinion on most issues was polarized by party. Scientific research was among the least polarized spending areas, after crime, highways and bridges, and space exploration. In contrast, spending on the environment was one of the three most polarizing issues.
Americans in both parties enthusiastically buy books about science, according to recent research on book purchases. But left and right are interested in different kinds of science — Democrats preferring basic science, and Republicans preferring books about applied and commercial science.
Science advocates might want to make sure that their movement visibly include a full range of scientists — not just basic researchers but also applied scientists and technical professionals. That would help send signals that standing up for science reaches beyond ideology.
Will science advocacy backfire?
The science community’s effort to more actively engage in the public sphere could backfire. If science begins to be seen as a “liberal” pursuit, it risks losing public favor and the ability to attract the best talent.
If, however, science advocates keep the focus on supporting scientific research in all its forms, scientists may be able to protect their work from cuts in funding and support — even if the broader goals of evidence-based policymaking must take a back seat.
Megan Mullin is associate professor of environmental politics and political science at Duke University. Follow her on Twitter @mullinmeg.