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Can we really trust scientists?

Scientists work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Mind the gap ... scientists and public opinion differ on climate change, genetic modification and space research Image: REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Rosamond Hutt
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Davos Agenda

Follow the debate live from Davos: The Global Science Outlook will look at the global science agenda and how it will be addressed, at 13.00 on 23 January 2016.

As science makes giant leaps forward in fields ranging from genomics to renewable energy, it feels as though we may be edging closer to solving some of world’s big and complex challenges.

Yet there is a major obstacle to overcome: trust.

A recent survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Pew Research Center suggests a sizeable gap exists between scientists and broader public opinion across a host of issues including climate change, genetic modification, space research and vaccines.

Here are three areas that could prove crucial to building public trust in scientific research in the future.

Where the money comes from

The pace of innovation in scientific research depends on governments and private organizations around the world spending many billions of dollars every year.

In G20 countries, governments spend an average of 0.65% of GDP on science and technology, businesses invest an average of 1.26% of GDP, and a further 0.13% comes from other sources.

The AAAS and Pew survey reveals that Americans believe that government investment in research benefits society, with around seven in 10 people saying that it pays off in the long run. There is also continued support for government funding – 61% think it is essential for scientific progress, compared to 60% in 2009.

During the global financial crisis, governments began cutting research and development spending, and in the US and EU funding has yet to recover to prerecession levels. Governments in developing countries, especially China, on the other hand, have upped their research funding.

In recent years, the US has moved towards private investment rather than government funding for basic research.

Businesses already employ more scientists than governments, universities and non-profits in many countries. This shift means the scientific community will need to do more to develop trust in the integrity of new funding models.

The reliability of research

Studies funded by corporations are often peer-reviewed and published in reputable journals, alongside government, university, or non-profit papers. But despite policies on conflicts of interest, people remain sceptical about research paid for by private industry.

Researchers and members of industry should counter the public’s perception of funding bias by promoting greater transparency and access to information about products, according to the Center for Accountability in Science.

“As with studies funded by other sources, if other scientists can replicate research done by those receiving industry funding, it lends much more credibility to the researchers’ findings,” the Center argues.

However, there is also a perception among some members of the public that the scientific process itself is flawed due to a number of factors including shortcomings in study design. Back in 2010, the British Journal of Psychiatry warned there was growing concern that a substantial amount of scientific research may be false, regardless of who funded it.

Communicating with the public

Some members of the public are particularly unlikely to trust scientists when it comes to certain issues such as man-made climate, vaccine safety and GM foods, even in the face of overwhelming supporting evidence.

Could clear and honest communication about scientific advances change this?

It should be possible for scientists to bridge this divide by communicating their findings not only to their academic peers and the media, but directly to the public through social media channels.

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