The current COVID-19 pandemic calls for a renewed public trust in science — for better or worse. We urge the global scientific community to seize this opportunity to build on that trust.
Three months into the pandemic, we issued a questionnaire to a panel of 337 US residents who represented a cross-section of the general public. Our aim was to find out how their trust had changed from before the pandemic (data collected in mid-August 2019). Those reporting “a lot of trust” in the federal government remained at an abysmal 1%, whereas “strong trust” in science jumped from 41% to 48%. We found that trust in science was the most important predictor of compliance with public-health recommendations for limiting viral spread.
With great trust comes great responsibility. As we ramp up research to meet the public’s need for solutions, we must be especially careful to communicate transparent information about our capabilities, uncertainties, disagreements or agreements (see S. van der Linden et al. Nature Hum. Behav. 2, 2–3; 2018).
Competence and warmth are judged by psychologists to be crucial for trustworthiness. Although scientists rate highly on competence, they can sometimes come over as dispassionate (see G. Cardew Nature 578, 9; 2020). Now, more than ever, we must show our commitment to humility, honesty and the public good.