Leaders hope belief in the scientific process can rebuild trust

After years of being battered by a sceptical and sometimes cynical public, scientific leaders are contending with an era in which science — and the scientific process — is facing a tendency towards distrust.

It has moved Australia’s Chief Scientist, Cathy Foley, to produce a report called “Trust in Science, Clarifying the distinctions between research integrity, research quality, excellence, and impact.”

The Australian Academy of Science welcomed the ‘trust in science’ discussion paper saying the distinction made in the paper between research integrity and research quality is important. “Both are important factors in maintaining trust in science,” an Academy spokesperson says.

“Australia should evolve our existing structures to establish a robust and fair national process for assuring the integrity of Australian research wherever it is conducted, however it is funded.”

The Academy will publish a position statement soon, that proposes improvements to the governance of research integrity in Australia.  

The spokesperson says misinformation and disinformation directly undermine scientific processes and scientific values, as they undermine many institutions of democratic society. “It restricts the ability of government and civil society to make decisions based on sound, established and verified information.” 

Last year the Academy joined with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering to recommend several improvements to the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, including identification of misinformation sources, addressing the harms arising from misinformation, and proactively promoting trusted information on matters important to society.

Foley says science and research are at the heart of the search for solutions to many global challenges, from addressing climate change, to personalised medicine and vaccines, to ensuring new technologies are developed and deployed for good.

“As scientists, we strongly encourage governments and industry to reach out to the science and research community as they tackle these challenges. In this context, it is critical that science retains its high standing and public trust,” Foley says.

“We have entered an era of declining trust in institutions, a lesser role for traditional gatekeepers of content, and increasing misinformation. As a result, science is contending with a higher tendency to question and distrust.

“Questioning is healthy for good science and good government, but distrust is not.

“The science and research sector has always had a responsibility to earn and retain trust through transparent systems of accountability, and through producing work of quality and integrity.

“This responsibility is especially cogent in the current context. However, the terms “quality” and “integrity” are too often confused or used interchangeably. The result is that a debate about the quality of a particular piece of work, or the accuracy or completeness of a particular dataset, comes to be seen wrongly as a reflection on scientific integrity.

“This is corrosive of trust and unhelpful to legitimate scientific debate and understanding of scientific consensus. Examples of poor scientific integrity do occur in Australia, as elsewhere.

“However, as Chief Scientist, I consider that Australian science and research are overwhelmingly of high integrity, and it is important that examples of poor integrity are not conflated with debates about quality and are not used to undermine trust in science.

The Australian Academy of Science has published an explainer on its website to enable the community to better understand the scientific process. Some examples of that work by the Academy are available here and here and here. 

Cosmos: Peer review puts scientific process under the spotlight

While noting that several countries have established Offices of Research Integrity, Foley does not express a view about calls for such an office in Australia.

The report aims to provide clarity and context about the process of science to contribute to better public debate and understanding.

Foley hopes to shift the debate from the isolated issues of integrity to the more pressing issues of quality.

“I believe the public will better understand the scientific process and trust will be built and strengthened.

“Shared understandings are a strong foundation on which public institutions can build trust. One does not need to look far to find examples where debates about the quality of a particular paper or dataset, valid or not, are side-tracked to an attack on the integrity of a research team, or science more generally.”

The report highlights controversies around contemporary issues: The COVID-19 pandemic; climate science and protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

Read the full report here:

Clarifying the distinctions between research integrity, research quality, excellence, and impact (chiefscientist.gov.au)

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