Nearly 30% of the Population is Skeptical About Science: How Universities Can Build Public Science Literacy and Trust in Science
Innovations and new technologies are emerging worldwide at a dizzying speed. These developments are the result of scientific advances and are critical to improving the human condition.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all the progress we’ve made, our society is currently facing some severe challenges, such as global warming and pandemics, and we can expect even more difficulties to occur in the future. As they have in the past, scientists will continue working to help us overcome these issues, and it is vital that the public continues to support and trust in science and the work of researchers.
According to the 3M State of Science Index 2022, a global survey conducted in 17 countries, 90% of respondents indicated that they trust science, while 86% indicated that they trust scientists. However, only 52% believe that science is important to their everyday life. In addition, the pandemic has affected the views of some. Skepticism of science was at a high of 35% in pre-pandemic 2020 but dropped to 27% in the midst of the pandemic in 2021. This figure has begun to increase again and stood at 29% in the most recent survey.
Why universities play an important role in building public scientific literacy and trust in science
While the majority of the population seems to still trust science and scientists, there is a glaring lack of trust in the scientific information that is communicated. According to the 3M survey, 88% of respondents believe there is widespread misinformation in social media today, and 72% believe there is widespread misinformation in traditional news. A majority of people (85%) believe the scientific information that comes from scientists and engineers; however, only a quarter of the survey respondents believe the scientific information they receive from politicians and social media. In addition, 39% believe that science divides people with opposing viewpoints
This situation negatively impacts society’s science literacy and trust in science because most people receive their science news from the media. Therefore, they are very likely to be getting misinformation and are less likely to trust any legitimate scientific communications they do hear. As we learned during the pandemic, conflicting reports and uncertainty leads to a mistrust that can impede the swift action required to alleviate a crisis.
One of the key drivers of public trust in science is science literacy: the knowledge of key science concepts and the understanding of science processes. Given the well-known role of universities in developing science literacy, universities are in a unique position to help society retain its trust in science. Universities do not have the perceived bias of the media and can more objectively disseminate scientific information as they enjoy more public trust than traditional or social media does.
How universities can improve science literacy and public trust in science
Universities play an important role in building public scientific literacy and trust in science through transparency in research processes and objectivity in disseminating scientific information. Many institutions are very cognizant of this role and have developed initiatives to strengthen their outreach. Here are examples of different types of initiatives designed to improve science literacy and public trust in science.
- Science newsletters
Newsletters are a comparatively low-cost means of creating awareness about the university’s research among wider audiences. For instance, McGill University’s Office for Science and Society a publishes a weekly newsletter that includes engaging articles about everyday science. These articles are also published on the University’s website. Recent topics include Christmas and lip balm.
- Public lectures or workshops
Public lectures or in-person workshops can lead to organic discussions with the public about science. For example, Kyoto University’s Institute for Chemical Research provides outreach programs “to bring the excitement and joy of chemistry to the public.” They offer public lectures about current research and give the public an opportunity to ask questions. They also host an annual symposium, during which students present their research to interested listeners.
- School outreach
Focusing on younger audiences is a good way of building lasting public trust in science. The American University in Cairo offers a Fun Lab, a physics laboratory where students can participate in demonstrations and experiments that teach them to think critically and question the information they learn. The slogan of the Fun Lab is “discover the science you have never seen before,” and in the past year, more than 7,000 students were in on the discovery. Similarly, Weill Cornell Medicine Graduate School of Medical Sciences (WCGS) conducts various science outreach initiatives to improve science education in the broader community, especially youth, in the New York City area. WCGS offers various programs to elementary and high school students to engage them in science. The school also provides professional development opportunities for teachers in STEM fields.
- Family-based science learning programs
Family-based programs are another effective way of sparking lifelong interest in science, especially among younger children. The Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre (EBSOC) at the University of Edinburgh has developed multiple Adult and Family Learning programs, located both at the EBSOC Lab and online, including hands-on experiments and DNA workshops. A Science at Home series leads families through simple experiments they can do at home.
- Activities for underserved communities
Universities are working to level the playing field by making scientific information and science education easily accessible to minority or disadvantaged groups. For example, the Lovely Professional University, India, organizes free month-long summer science camps for children from rural India. Similarly, the Mariano Marcos State University, Philippines, runs immersion camps in STEM fields for girls from rural areas of the Philippines.
By engaging students and the public in research and providing opportunities for hands-on experiences, universities increase society’s science literacy and promote the creation of future scientists. Disseminating scientific information in a transparent and objective manner can go a long way to keeping the public engaged and increase society’s trust in science, which is necessary if we are to be successful in facing today’s challenges.