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Is trust in scientists dependent on context?

Posted by on June 26, 2014

Sir Paul Nurse at Parliamentary Links Day 2014 Society of Biologyby Francesca Soutter, policy intern at the Society of Biology

On the 24th June 2014, scientists and policy makers came together at Portcullis House for Parliamentary Links Day. The agenda for was Science and Public Trust with keynote speeches by Sir Mark Walport, Rt. Hon Liam Byrne and Sir Paul Nurse, and two chaired panel sessions.

Is public trust in science and scientists of concern? The recent Ipsos Mori poll suggested that public trust in scientists is high with 90% of those surveyed trusting scientists within universities to follow rules and regulations however this dropped to only 60% for scientists working for private companies. In the same poll scientists also fared less well when it to openness with 50% considering scientists to be secretive.

Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific adviser, had a different take on this issue and stated that trust is context specific and whilst the public trusted scientists when it came to informing us about the Higgs Bosun particle, the level of trust was far less for controversial issues such as GM crops. Interested groups, such as environmental campaign groups, may also approach controversial topics differently to the science community and have different concerns, he suggested. The Chief Scientific Adviser was also keen to stress that there is no good or bad technology just good or bad applications of technology.

So how do we address the disconnect between the science community and the public, when it comes to controversial issues? Openness and engagement with the public is imperative and Fiona Fox from the Science Media Centre stressed the need for scientists at all level to engage with issues that are within the public sphere and not to shy away from providing evidence to lively public debate.

Where do politicians fit into the science and trust debate? They certainly fared far worse than scientists when it came to public trust, with an Ipsos Mori poll in 2013 showing that only 18% of Britons trusted politicians to tell the truth. Policy decisions are infinitely more complicated than consideration of scientific evidence alone, however this does not relieve scientists of their responsibility to provide good quality evidence to policy makers and be open about limitations and existing uncertainty.

The consensus of all the speakers was that scientists must engage with politicians and the public if trust in science is to continue. If all else fails you can make the leap from science to politics and run for public office. Any takers?


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