US trust in scientists is now on par with the military

Confidence in researchers might be on the rise, but concerns about misconduct and potential conflicts of interest remain.

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People carrying signs at the March for Science, Washington DC, 2018

US respondents to a survey examining public trust in scientists say that independent reviews of research findings boost their confidence in the results.Credit: Michael Candelori/Pacific Press Via Zuma/Shutterstock

Trust in scientists is on the rise in the United States, according to a survey of more than 4,000 people released on 2 August.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC, found that 86% of people in the United States have “a fair amount” to “a great deal” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest. The level of confidence is 10% higher than levels in 2016, the first year that Pew conducted this survey (see ‘In scientists we trust’).

For respondents who have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest, levels increased from 21% in 2016 to 35% in 2019. A rise in “great” confidence occurred for most of the groups included in the survey ― including the news media and elected officials ― but it was the most pronounced for scientists.

The proportion with “a fair amount” to “a great deal” of confidence in scientists is comparable with public trust in the military ― in contrast to 2016, when confidence in researchers ranked just below the military. Pew polled more than 4,400 people over 18 years old in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

But the survey also found signs of scepticism: only 20% of respondents said that scientists across disciplines are upfront about their potential conflicts of interest with industry all or most of the time. Environmental research received particular scrutiny, with only 35% of people saying that scientists in this field provide fair and accurate information all or most of the time.

Misconduct was a particular concern, especially among black and Hispanic respondents. Fifty-nine per cent of black respondents, and 60% of those describing themselves as Hispanic, viewed misconduct among medical research scientists as a moderately big or very big problem. Only 42% of white people in the survey reported the same degree of concern.

Overall, survey participants who had more knowledge about science had greater confidence that researchers act in the public interest. And people reported that providing open access to data, as well as conducting independent reviews of research findings, would boost their confidence in the results.

“Many people distrust a lot of people in positions of authority,” says John Besley, who studies public opinion about science at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Some of the mistrust directed towards scientists could stem from that attitude, he adds.

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