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Misplaced faith

The public trusts scientists much more than scientists think. But should it?

British chemists are a diffident and self-conscious bunch. A poll by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has revealed that its members are pessimistic about their status in society. The general public, said the chemists, thinks that chemistry is boring and of little value. Worse, they said, the public thinks chemists are unapproachable. Such negative views have shaped the way that British chemists have promoted themselves and their research; they have focused on counteracting a negative and damaging stereotype about chemistry and chemicals.

Yet as RSC science communicator Chiara Ceci writes in a World View on page 7, the British public does not think these things at all. In another part of the poll, most members of the public were generally positive about chemistry, if a little hazy on its specific benefits and exactly what chemists do. The strongest reaction to the central science was not fear or confusion, but simple indifference. That can be useful. It creates what public-relations experts call a void in the collective consciousness — one that they can fill with positive images.

If the British public likes chemistry — at least more than the chemists believed — then it is positively glowing about science in general. Survey respondents described it with words such as ‘welcoming’, ‘sociable’ and ‘fun’. And a separate poll by Ipsos MORI this year showed that scientists are among the most trusted professionals in Britain; some nine in ten people said that they trust scientists to follow all of the research rules and regulations relevant to them.

Nine in ten people trust scientists to follow the rules. How many scientists would say the same?

How many scientists would say the same? Not many, probably, of the attendees at this week’s 4th World Conference on Research Integrity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As we report on page 14, attendees at the weekend discussed the latest high-profile case of scandal, fraud allegations and retraction. The attention drawn by the paper in question — discussing how views on same-sex marriage can be changed — prompted The New York Times to publish an editorial titled ‘Scientists who cheat’. That will not help to fill any void with positive images.

Some scientists do cheat, of course, just as some scientists drive too fast, take drugs and are unfaithful to their spouses. The reasons are complex and varied. With some exceptions, scientific organizations do not engage with the issue of misconduct as seriously as they should. Why would they, when public confidence and (moral and financial) support remains so high?

Media coverage of the same-sex-marriage retraction was laced with portentous language, claiming that faith and trust in science had been profoundly shaken. Yet, as researchers who follow misconduct issues will know, faith and trust in science have survived worse in recent years.

That should not be taken as an excuse to ignore the problem of research misconduct or to minimize its importance. And although high-profile fraud makes headlines, a broader and more common set of unappealing behaviours — from corner-cutting to data-juggling — lie under the surface. Convention says that a tiny minority of scientists cheats, yet academics and researchers frequently make the case that irregularities are widespread. A 2014 survey of hundreds of economists, for example, found that 94% admitted to having engaged in at least one “unaccepted” research practice (S. Necker Res. Policy 43, 1747–1759; 2014).

Just like with British chemistry, it seems that the wider public’s view of science and research is rosier than that of many people who are directly involved. For how long can this continue?

Related links

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Retracted gay-marriage study debated at misconduct meet-up 2015-Jun-02

Take concepts of chemistry out of the classroom 2015-Jun-02

Publish or perish 2015-May-19

Collateral damage: How one misconduct case brought a biology institute to its knees 2015-Apr-29

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Misplaced faith. Nature 522, 6 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/522006a

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