Discussing public trust in science: Parliamentary Links Day 2014

At this year’s Parliamentary Links Day, MPs, scientists and media representatives were asked how to tackle the problem of science and public trust. This stimulated discussion on issues such as data privacy, media relations, and engagement.

The first thing to establish: has there actually been an increase in public mistrust in science? Julian Huppert MP, kicked off the discussions by suggesting that whilst science used to be one of the most highly trusted, and unquestioned professions, that this is no longer the case. However, there seemed to be a general consensus that there was not a ‘crisis in trust’. James Wilsdon of the Science Policy Research Unit referred to Onora O’Neill’s speech on trust in which she declares that there is little evidence for mistrust. Instead there is evidence for a culture of suspicion. Opinion polls show that those considered least trustworthy 20 years ago are still the same groups as today: politicians and journalists, whilst university scientists are very heavily trusted . Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, added that opinion polls don’t necessarily reveal everything about the current overall levels of trust, and perhaps there has been an overall decline in the levels of trust in all areas. It is suggested that there has been a diminishing trust in police and armed force and perhaps losing trust in these areas makes the public more wary and questioning of other activities. Whether or not there is diminishing public trust, James highlighted that “trust must be a two way street, not something demanded by the powerful of the powerless”.

The accessibility of data to the public has potential to affect level of trust and Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor, drew out three key aspects to data privacy encryption, access and legislation. Terry Lyons from the Council for the Mathematical Sciences believes data encryption plays an important role in public trust. But which data should be made available to the public and which should be protected, is not clearly regulated enough.  Nicola Gilley, editorial director at IOP publishing, explained that whilst there are systems in place to increase scientists’ trust in science such as peer review processes and plagiarism checks, these processes are not necessarily understood by the general public.  Scientists should think about how to communicate their work to a wider audience when publishing, because, Sir Mark adds, trust is undermined by lack of engagement by science community in politics, media and the public.

The subject of engagement was built upon in the second panel discussion, led by the five rules for public engagement from Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre. She appealed to scientist to be open and honest about their work, not overselling it and admitting to uncertainties. She also spoke of her experience of the difficulty of encouraging scientific experts to speak up during times of public emergencies, when their advice and opinion is needed more than ever. Pallab Ghosh, BBC Science Correspondent, was also aware of this fear to speak out when their views conflict with government initiatives. He recently published an article on Professor Tim Coulson’s post on the Journal of Animal Ecology’s blog, declaring that Defra are wilfully ignoring scientists on the issue of the badger cull and bovine TB.

Many of the speakers spoke of the importance of distinguishing policy for science (i.e. governmental funding) and science for policy (i.e. provisioning of evidence). James suggested that due to this “messy boundary”, scientists don’t always understand that although they may be well informed to comment on the science of an issue, they may have little or no place commenting on the political or social impacts of a decision, and are really there to help politicians navigate through the evidence.

Sir Mark lamented this point in his keynote address, as he believes scientists must understand that ultimately public policy decides. Science needs to listen to the needs of government as much as the other way round, helped by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) which helps translate science for parliamentary need.

Sir Mark believes that we tend to view trust as an all or nothing thing but in fact it is very context specific. When scientists talk about contentious issues the level of trust changes. As an example of poor communication, he drew upon examples from the recent controversial fracking proposals, claiming that that those fighting against it are not doing so on a scientific basis but have instead created a reactive up rise in the media that is not addressing any of the scientific concerns (such as earthquake tremors and contamination of aquifers), but is instead based on the fact that they don’t like fossil fuels, they don’t like big companies and they don’t want it happening in their own back yard. To avoid these situations and increase trust, discussions between, government, parliament, the scientific community and the general public must be facilitated.

Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, proudly launched the Labour Green Paper on science and innovation policy, which is open to comment until 1 August. This follows on from comes two years on from Julian Huppert’s Liberal Democrat science paper.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, concluded the event, and said that scientists need to be available in public debates to find out which aspects of an issue might need clarification for the public. This prevents polarisation of debates. With climate change, extremist views dominate; many say it’s not happening at all and many others say it will bring on dire catastrophes imminently. He calls for the need of specialists to contribute to policy but also generalists who understand wider landscape and scientific policy.

Hopefully many of the attendees walked away feeling that there is a place for science in policy, and by improving communication and engagement, public trust in science and in scientists can be maintained.