It’s mostly cheers for science

Those of us who place trust for remedies in clever thinkers and careful, fact-based investigation have been having a hard time of it lately.

Decades of evidence ignored is the bedrock of the so-called climate debate (what debate?); this year’s COVID treasures include bullies with global pulpits suggesting that kind-of, sort-of injecting disinfectants, well, not actually injecting, more like “cleaning and sterilising”… “maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work”.

The novel coronavirus has prompted people around the world to look to scientists and the research and development process for new treatments and prevention strategies, and it’s a relief to report that a new international survey by the Washington DC-based Pew Research Center has found that scientists and their research are widely regarded in a positive light by people around the globe.

Large majorities of those surveyed also believe government investments in scientific research yield benefits for society.

The wide-ranging survey – the Pew Center’s first in-depth examination of international public attitudes toward scientists and scientific topics – was conducted among the publics of 20 different countries around the world, including Australia, Brazil, several European nations, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK, Canada and the US.

Run before the COVID-19 outbreak reached pandemic proportions, the survey reveals that ambivalence over certain scientific developments – in areas such as artificial intelligence and genetically modified foods – often exists alongside high trust for scientists generally, and positive views in other areas such as space exploration.

The survey found that scientists as a group are highly regarded compared with other prominent groups and institutions in society. In all publics, majorities have at least some trust in scientists to do what is right. A global median of 36% have “a lot” of trust in scientists – much higher than the shares who say this about business leaders, their national governments and news media.

Large majorities of those surveyed also believe government investments in scientific research yield benefits for society.

Public concerns around climate change and environmental degradation remain widespread.

In most countries, majorities view climate change as a very serious problem and say their government is not doing enough to address it. They point to a host of environmental concerns at home including air and water pollution, overburdened landfills, deforestation and the loss of plant and animal species.

In the face of discussion about the public acceptance of vaccines, the new survey finds majorities in most places tend to view childhood vaccines – such as those for measles, mumps and rubella – as relatively safe and effective, although sizable minorities across the globe hold doubts about this keystone tool of modern medicine.

“As the global landscape for scientific research continues to shift, these findings showcase the generally positive views that publics around the world hold for scientists and their work, as well as ideological fault lines in many places over how much to trust scientists,” says Cary Funk, the Pew’s director of science and society research.

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“This survey gives a portrait of global opinion on the place of science in society as challenges from the coronavirus outbreak were taking hold, and it sheds light on divisions over key civic issues ahead including vaccines, climate change and developments in AI.”

Given the survey’s positioning ahead of COVID taking hold, it’s heartening that a global median of 82% consider government investment in scientific research a worthwhile thing; majorities across the places surveyed view it as important to be a leader in scientific achievements.

Interestingly, people’s assessment of their nation’s achievements in science fell short of their aspirations: a median of 42% say their nation’s scientific achievements are above average or the best in the world. However, the shares holding this view range from 8% in Brazil to 61% each in the US and UK.

People in many places see room for improvement when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at the university and primary and secondary school levels. A median of 42% rates university education in STEM in their survey public as above average or the best in the world, while a smaller median of 30% give high marks to their STEM education at the primary and secondary school level.

The survey’s findings in Australia run broadly to global averages, with a few interesting digressions.

In Australia, 58% of those surveyed say being a world leader in scientific achievements is very important (global median 51%) and 88% say government investments in scientific research aimed at advancing knowledge are usually worthwhile for society over time (global median 82%).

A comfortable majority of 76% in Australia think their country’s medical treatments are the best in the world or above average (global median 59%), with only 4% saying Australian medical treatments are below average.

And while 59% of Australians think national scientific achievements are at least above average, only 47% think Australia’s technological achievements are above average or the best in the world.

Close to half the Australians surveyed think their university STEM education is the best in the world or above average, but only 29% say this about STEM education at primary and secondary school level.

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Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

People in most nations see their government’s space exploration program as a good thing for society (global median 72%), but in Australia only 63% say the Australian Space Agency’s space exploration program has been good for society.

Australians tend to have negative views about the development of AI and using robots to automate jobs. Some 49% say artificial intelligence has been good for society (global median 53%), while 39% say it has been bad (global median 33%).

Opinions about the effect of workplace automation through robotics are split: 44% say it has been a good thing (global median 48%), while 47% say it has been a bad thing (global median 42%).

Aussies were also generally less keen about produce grown with pesticides and food and drinks with artificial preservatives. They were evenly split over the safety of genetically modified foods.

When it comes to childhood vaccines such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, a sizeable 78% of Australians surveyed say the preventive health benefits from the MMR vaccine are high (global median 61%) and 69% rate the risk of side effects as low or none (global median 55%).

Australians are nearer the world mark on protecting the environment, even if it causes slower economic growth and some job loss of – 72% would prioritise environmental protection (global median 71%).

A global median of 70% say they are experiencing a great deal or some effects of climate change where they live, but only 58% in Australia felt the same. But a 65% majority in Australia say their government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, against 58% globally.

The survey considered more than simple responses and some of its more interesting findings revolve around the influence of political views.

It found, for instance, that trust in scientists is often higher for those on the left than the right of the political spectrum – this was especially pronounced in the US, where 62% of those on the left have a lot of trust in scientists, compared with just 20% of those on the right. While not as dramatically separate, the same divide was evident in Canada, the UK, Germany and Spain.

Australians tend to have negative views about the development of AI and using robots to automate jobs.

Views about climate change were also strongly linked to politics, and again the divide between left and right was widest in the US. Left-leaning Australians are more than twice as likely as those on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem (79% vs 36%) and wide differences were also recorded in Canada, the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Poland.

Surprisingly, while the public views scientists as among the most trusted groups in society, many people value practical experience over expertise when it comes to solving pressing societal problems. Globally, a median of 66% think it’s better to rely on people with practical experience to solve a problem, while 28% say it’s better to rely on people who are considered experts, even if they don’t have much practical experience.

Finally, a global majority (68%) reckon the media do a good job covering science topics; ratings of the news media are lowest in the US and Spain, where about 50% say the media do a good job with their science coverage. A global median of 74% consider limited public understanding of science to be a problem for media coverage of scientific research.

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The Pew survey results come a week after a study published in in the open access journal PLOS Biology showing that Twitter has also become an increasingly vital tool for scientific communication.

Researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine, US, revealed some exciting – and, at times, disturbing – patterns of how research is received and disseminated through social media.

Scientists candidly tweet about their unpublished research not only to one another but also to a broader audience of engaged laypeople. The study suggests that each user in a social network will tend to connect with other users who share similar characteristics (such as occupation, age, race, hobbies, or geographic location), a sociological concept formally known as “network homophily”.

Rather than categorising people into coarse groups such as “scientists” and “non-scientists” that rely on Twitter users to accurately describe themselves in their platform biographies, the authors accurately segmented “scientists” into their specific research disciplines (such as evolutionary biology or bioinformatics), regardless of whether they mentioned these sub-disciplines in their Twitter bios.

The broader category of “non-scientists” can be automatically segmented into a multitude of groups, such as mental-health advocates, dog lovers, video-game developers, religious groups, and political constituencies.

The authors caution that these indicators of diverse public engagement may not always be in line with scientists’ intended goals. Hundreds of papers were found to have Twitter audiences that were dominated by conspiracy theorists, white nationalists or science denialists.

In extreme cases, these audience sectors comprised more than half of all tweets referencing a given study, starkly illustrating the adage that science does not exist in a cultural or political vacuum.

Particularly in light of the rampant misappropriation and politicisation of scientific research throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors hope that the study results might motivate scientists to keep a closer watch on the social-media pulse surrounding their publications and intervene accordingly to guide their audiences towards productive and well-informed engagement.

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