According to a Eurobarometer survey, a majority of people don’t trust scientists. The only way to reverse this trend is for academics to step up their efforts to communicate with the public, writes Eoin Lettice
Laboratory technician tests fluids at the Institute of Cellular Medicine in San Jose, Costa Rica
Europeans recognise the benefits of science but are fearful of the power that knowledge gives to scientists. Photograph: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
Thursday 24 June 2010 21.17 AEST Last modified on Thursday 11 February 2016 02.46 AEDT
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Despite World Cup and Wimbledon fever, a survey published this week suggests that more Europeans are interested in scientific discoveries and technological developments than are interested in sport. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey for the European Commission, 80% are interested in science and technology whereas 65% are interested in sport.
However, the same survey found that 57% think scientists should be doing more to communicate their work to the general public and 66% believe governments should do more to interest young people in scientific issues.
Europeans overwhelmingly recognise the benefits of science, but many also express fears about risks from new technologies and the power that knowledge gives to scientists.
An alarming 58% of respondents across the European Union agreed that:
“We can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because they depend more and more on money from industry.”
The figure falls to 49% for UK respondents. Given the tough news delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the budget on Wednesday and likely cuts in R&D funding to be announced in the autumn spending review, industry might well be expected to step into the breach and provide more cash.
This raises the question: will the British and wider European public be happy about more money from big business paying for scientific research? This survey suggests the answer is no, but at the same time the public is hardly likely to demand higher taxes to pay for purely government-sponsored science.
Worrying too is the finding that 53% of European respondents (46% of UK respondents) agree with the statement that, because of their knowledge, scientists “have a power that makes them dangerous”. Not potentially dangerous, notice, but dangerous. When you take into account the 23% who didn’t know or who neither agreed or disagreed, the survey suggests that just 24% of EU citizens believe that scientists are not dangerous.
Some consolation can be taken from the fact that in the equivalent Eurobarometer survey in 2005, 59% of EU respondents (58% in the UK) thought scientists were dangerous.
According to the latest survey, a majority believe that scientists do not put enough effort into informing the public about new developments in science and technology (57% of EU respondents and 56% of UK respondents).
The majority of EU citizens (63% of respondents) feel that scientists working in university or government laboratories are best qualified to explain scientific and technological developments. Just 32% believe that scientists working in industry are best placed and a mere 16% of respondents (14% in the UK) that newspaper journalists are best equipped to discuss such developments.
Compared with 2005, there has been a noticeable shift towards trusting scientists in academia or the public services to explain science and technology (up 19 percentage points in the UK) and away from newspaper journalists (down 9 percentage points in the UK).
Commenting on the findings, EU research, innovation and science commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said:
“The success of the Europe 2020 strategy depends on cutting-edge science to keep Europe competitive. In turn, that means ordinary Europeans need to back science and keep the pressure up on government and on industry to invest in it. These results show a very high awareness of the importance of science. But they also show that both politicians – like me – and scientists themselves need to explain better what we are doing and why.”
Overall, the survey shows that European citizens are optimistic about the benefits of science and technology for the economy. Some 75% of respondents agree or tend to agree that thanks to science and technology there will be more opportunities for future generations.
However, there has been a shift towards greater scepticism about science’s impact on people’s lives compared with the 2005 survey. For example, when presented with the statement “Science and technology make our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable”, 78% of EU respondents agreed in 2005, whereas 66% agreed in 2010.
On the evidence of this survey, this scepticism can only be reduced if more scientists, in particular those in academia, make a greater effort to communicate their work to the general public.
As Peter Fiske wrote in Nature earlier this year:
“Scientists must communicate about their work – to other scientists, sponsors of their research and the general public … searching for opportunities to give talks and lectures – and seeking audiences that are outside one’s immediate sphere of scientific influence.
“Many scientists are incredulous at how little the general public knows about science and technology, but scientists do little to address the gap in understanding. Most think that their successes in the lab are manifestly evident, making education about the value of their work unnecessary. Few ever communicate with their elected officials. With the public footing most of the bill, this misguided belief seems naive and undermines those who campaign for more funding.
“Excellent work is a prerequisite for career progress, but is not sufficient by itself. Broadcasting one’s accomplishments and exercising the ‘active voice’ in all aspects of one’s work is the best way to earn notice, gain recognition and make the public at large aware of the value of the scientific enterprise.”
Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at University College Cork, Ireland. He also writes the Communicate Science blog where the original version of this article appears