Building Trust in Scientists

Building public trust in science should be the scientific community’s top priority. That is the conclusion of an editorial in this week’s Nature (Vol 466: 1 July 2010), which should act as a rallying cry to researchers to engage with the public and policy-makers. Another editorial feature highlights the potential of science blogs to allow researchers to do this.

The stimulus for the editorial is a news feature (p24-25) examining the erosion of public trust in science in the wake of the ‘climategate’ controversies (leaked emails from the Climatic Research Unit at UEA and contention over reporting of glacial melting in the latest IPCC report). Despite concerns that public belief in the reality of climate change has taken a nosedive in recent months, the article suggests that the situation isn’t as dire as many researchers believe: a survey at Cardiff University this year indicated that 78% of UK residents believed that the climate was changing, compared to 91% in 2005. More than three quarters of respondents ascribed climate change at least in part to human activity. A recent BBC poll showed that although there was a drop from November 2009 to February 2010 in the proportion of those believing climate change is caused by human actions, those who had heard about the ‘climategate’ controversies had not shifted their opinion as a result. In fact, it’s more likely that the decline is attributable to the exceptionally cold winter experienced in the UK. In the words of one contributor to the article, Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist from Stanford, “the way people decide whether climate change is happening is by sticking their finger out the window”.

There’s no doubt that climate scientists are facing mounting attacks on the integrity of their research. What can the scientific community do to face these challenges robustly and ensure public support for action to tackle climate change? Sheila Jasanoff, a science-policy expert at Harvard (and a contributor to Monday night’s Royal Society Science Policy Centre Debate, covered on this blog) says that more communication is good, but warns against the simplistic ‘deficit model’ – that a problem can be solved simply by transferring more knowledge. Researchers should instead seek to include the public in decision-making, for example as members of advisory bodies.

The editorial piece urges scientists to recognise themselves as ‘public figures and honest brokers’, avoiding hype and over exaggeration and welcoming legitimate scepticism into debate. They must provide policy-makers and the public with clear, accurate and credible information, acknowledging uncertainties and nuances. Polls in the U.S. have consistently shown the public trust in scientists is second only to military leaders – and jointly tied with physicians. To maintain this level of trust scientists and scientific institutions must become more transparent and open about the scientific process and the current limitations of our knowledge.