In 2015, a benchmark science communication study by Science Counts (supported by Burroughs Wellcome Fund) brought some truly welcome news: for the vast majority of the American public, the word “science“ represents hope, optimism, and a path to a better future.
Now fast-forward to November 2019 - to new problems, new policies, and an apparent explosion of “anti-science” sentiment online. Should the same group pose the same questions, you might presume a quite different result. Yet when Science Counts did just that, they found that the same general truth still holds: the public value science, and the public value scientists.
So how do we reconcile this? Study author Chris Volpe says the solution is obvious: when it comes to public support for science, context and motive are everything.
Volpe is the Executive Director of Science Counts, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting awareness and support of scientific research. An Earth scientist by training, but also a successful entrepreneur and business owner, Volpe was a founding board member of Science Counts, with a reputation for asking what he calls “the dumb, fundamental questions”. When he transitioned to directing it full-time, he doubled down on that approach.
“I was hearing a lot of conversations about what Americans think about science,” says Volpe, “and we were spending a lot of time talking about the tactical stuff…like ’How do we get Texans to care about Climate Change?’. But I took a step back and said ‘okay, that’s great - but what are our ultimate goals? Strategically, what are the kinds of things we are trying to do?
And that led to a fundamental question: What is science’s brand? What does the word science do for you? Not a specific type of science, or a specific scientific issue. Just the word science. We really did not know."
That question led to Science Counts’ initial benchmark survey back in 2015. The study sampled over 2,000 participants nationwide, and posed 52 questions on perceptions, associations, and opinions relating to science.
Results were then segmented for levels of apparent support for science - identifying the most supportive group (the active Drivers), the least supportive group (the terminally Disengaged), and two levels of support in between (Front Seaters and Back Seaters).
This done, the support levels were then tabled against demographic factors such as age, gender, geography, ethnicity, education level, and political orientation.
Following the core survey, the authors conducted nine in-depth focus groups with select participants, in order to dissect, examine, and clarify nuances of response.
The results were striking - and to many, a pleasant surprise. The survey revealed extremely positive associations with science for almost all participants. A full 70% said they completely trust scientists to conduct beneficial research, and a 74% said they highly trust scientists to tell the truth. While the general level of trust in most institutions - banks, insurance companies, government - had evidently eroded, trust in the institution of science, and in scientists as individuals, remained high.
Moreover, the study found no significant “anti-science” contingent, no evidence of a movement organized to that end. Of the paltry 12% of Americans in the “Disengaged” segment, the chief characteristic was not active resistance, but passive apathy.
“They’re not activists”, says Volpe, “They are the people living in their mom’s basement. They’re not engaged in anything. It’s not that they're picking on science - they’re just pretty apathetic folks across the board.”
Four Years On
When Science Counts repeated the survey in 2019, they posed the same questions once more - adding a few more to parse details on specific, controversial issues. Again, in contrast to assumptions, the overwhelming tone was laudatory, with similar proportions of Drivers, Disengaged, Front- and Back-Seaters in evidence. No huge anti-science movement. No massive shift in trust or tone.
Why, then, does there seem to be so much science-related dissent in the chatrooms, Twitter feeds, and Facebook timelines of America. Argument on issues ranging from Climate Change to COVID-19?
Unfortunately, says Volpe, “political ideology is the primary determinant of support and resistance”. Many of these “anti-science” arguments, Volpe attests, are nothing of the kind. Rather, they represent seemingly unresolvable differences in worldview and hoped-for outcomes.
“If you look in an aggregate, you can miss the story,” says Volpe. “When you have a population that polarizes, some go up, some go down, and the average doesn't necessarily show…Overall there's no change, but Liberals seem to be a little more trusting of scientists and Conservatives a little less."
This finding was further explained by a deep dive into the survey data, which suggested that Liberals and Conservatives relate to privately and publicly-funded science in very different ways. While self-described Conservatives value and approve of industrial, market-driven science and technology, they are more suspicious of government-funded studies, results, and policy recommendations. For their part, Liberals value government-funded research as a clear public good, but are wary of industry-funded studies and initiatives.
Motive Over Trust
That is why, says Volpe, scientists, educators, and communicators should be moving away from questions of trust and value in public engagement efforts and campaigns.
“We believe trust is not the most perfect measure of what's going on. We believe the word that we're trying to get to as a community is motive. People want to know what motivates specific types of research. What’s the intended outcome?”
Once we understand that motive is more important than blanket approval or trust, we can better understand why support for specific areas and applications of science varies so widely. With this understanding in mind, we can begin to tailor our messages more effectively, in order to win over the “back-seaters” and make them more active supporters and champions of essential research.
To do that, says Volpe, scientists and science communicators have to be more curious, and to spend more time on “receive” than “transmit”. To ask for - and actively listen to - the full range of public opinions. To respect and acknowledge differences in desired outcome and worldview. First and foremost, we need to avoid squandering the rare level of trust and respect that science already enjoys.
“People are willing to put their hopes, their aspirations in science. People want to admire scientists, and they want to trust scientists. That’s where we’re starting from. And that’s a great place to be."
But therein, says Volpe, lies the rub: Hope is an expectation of a future outcome, and different people hope for different things. This explains how science still represents ‘hope’ to most Americans, yet around some scientific issues, we remain deeply polarized. Those issues do not exist in a vacuum. They are impinging on very different values, beliefs and people worldviews.
“If science is hope,” says Volpe, “then what are people hoping for? That’s the critical question.”