Americans Trust Scientists More, but Are Split Over Policy Role

(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

(CN) – Americans’ confidence that scientists act in the best interests of society has risen since 2016, the Pew Research Center reported Friday, but partisan differences shape opinions of whether they should be more active in public policy.

Overall, 86% of survey respondents said they have a fair to a great deal of trust in scientists, which is a 10% increase since 2016. However, political divides arose in applying that trust.

Among Democratic respondents, 73% said that scientists “should take an active role in policy debates,” but a 56% majority of Republican respondents said that scientists “should focus on establishing sound scientific facts.”

Most Democrats, 54%, said scientists are better at making policy decisions in their areas of study than others, while 66% of Republicans said scientists are no different or worse than politicians in making science-based policy decisions. A smaller majority of Republicans, 55%, also said scientists are just as likely as anyone else to demonstrate biased, whereas 62% of Democrats said the opposite.

Democratic respondents consistently backed the integrity of scientists, but Republicans were more split. Majorities of Republicans with an array of scientific knowledge were confident in the scientific method itself, especially Republicans with high science knowledge, at 59%.

However, 64% of those same high-knowledge Republicans were more likely to say that scientists were just as biased as anyone else. Inversely, 57% of Republicans with low science knowledge were more likely to say that scientists base their judgments solely on the facts.

This data point suggested that it was not just partisan differences driving differing opinions, but education level regarding scientific fields.

Overall, higher scientific education typically lent itself to more trust for scientists.

For example, 54% of survey respondents said they knew “a lot” about environmental research scientists, and 44% of that same group said that those scientists produce accurate information all or most of the time. Only 21% said they had no knowledge of environmental research scientists, and 25% of that group said those scientists usually produce accurate information.

A 56% majority of respondents said they knew a lot about medical doctors, and 58% said that doctors produced accurate information. No one said they knew nothing about doctors, but 34% of those with “low” science knowledge said that doctors provide accurate information most of the time.

Researchers sought possible solutions from respondents, and they primarily cited making information publicly available as the primary solution to the problem of distrust against science. Overall, 57% of respondents said that making data available to the public would improve trust, followed by independent review at 52%.

A 48% plurality said that government funding made no difference in the public’s trust of scientific claims, and a 58% majority said that scientific research funded by industry groups would reduce trust in scientists.

Regarding recommendations from scientists, 68% of respondents said that scientists’ willingness to seek a second opinion would increase public trust in their recommendations. A small number, 43%, said that reviews from independent committees would increase their trust in scientific recommendations.

A 48% plurality said that governmental financial incentives would improve trust in recommendations, and a 62% majority said that financial incentives from industry groups would decrease trust in scientific recommendations.

Researchers ultimately found that the public trusts scientists more and more, but the basis of that trust came primarily from Democratic respondents and those with significant scientific background knowledge. To combat the public distrust that does exist, those surveyed recommended more transparency in research and robust peer review, as well as a partition between scientists and industries that might seek to affect their work.

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