Understanding public trust and distrust in science

September 4, 2020 2:30 - 4:00

Location: Room 28H


The Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on relations between political and scientific systems, and brought many hundreds of scientists into everyday discourse on suppressing the virus. The crisis has re-ignited debates between populists who challenge scientific expertise and those who argue for evidence-based policy. But surveys of public opinion in recent months across many countries show a notable increase in the levels of public trust in scientists.

This session will review these survey findings and their wider societal implications. It will discuss whether the difficult exit from 'lockdown' conditions could reverse the trend, as public impatience with restrictions grows.  

Before the pandemic it was widely thought it was increasingly difficult for advocates of evidence-based policy to get a hearing and this perception has often been expressed in the scientific community: public trust in science was thought to be declining continually. In fact, public opinion survey data from European countries indicate that public trust and confidence in scientists and in research have remained stable over many years.

How has this ‘disconnect’ between researched evidence and community perception of public opinion on science grown up and how has the Covid-19 experience affected it?

Science communicators are at the heart of this puzzle, working closely with scientific communities looking outwards to wider society, while also learning from and listening to various publics. Science communication plays a crucial role in the gaining and maintaining of public trust for scientists and scientific institutions.

This panel is made up of leading members of two science communication associations, Eusea (European Science Engagement Association) and PCST (Public Communication of Science and Technology) Network. Both gather together many kinds of practitioners of public engagement with science, as well as trainers, teacher and researchers with strong links to policy and to the academic study of science in society. Among the panelists are representatives of organisations in Germany, Italy and Sweden that have commissioned the surveys that produce the data referred to here.

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