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Coronavirus ‘will damage public trust in scientists’

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Research suggests public perception of science will be unaffected, but individual reputations will be hit

The trustworthiness of scientists is likely to be “significantly” affected as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, research has found.

According to a paper published by the London School of Economics and the Economic and Social Research Council, evidence from past epidemics suggests that while the coronavirus will not affect the public’s regard for science overall, it will reduce confidence in individual scientists.

The study comes as data advisory firm Savanta, found that the public approval rating for the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance (pictured, right) fell from a high of 58 per cent at the end of March to 31 per cent by 1 June.

Chris Whitty (pictured left), chief medical officer to the UK government, has seen his approval rating fall from a high of 64 per cent to 35 per cent in the same period.

Approval ratings

Writing about scientists in general, Cevat Giray Aksoy, a lecturer in economics at King’s College London and co-author of the report, said the current pandemic may “worsen perceptions of their honesty, and weaken the belief that their activities benefit the public”. 

The researchers combined data from a 2018 Wellcome Trust survey of more than 70,000 people in 160 countries with data on global epidemics since 1970.

According to the paper—Revenge of the Experts: Will Covid-19 Renew or Diminish Public Trust in Science?—previous virus outbreaks had “no impact on views of science as an endeavour or on opinions of whether the study of disease is properly an aspect of science, but [significantly reduced] confidence in scientists and the benefits of their work”.

“The strongest impact is likely to be felt by individuals in their ‘formative years’—that is, [aged] 18 to 25—a period of life when value systems and opinions are durably formed,” Aksoy said.

To restore trust in scientists, the report suggests those working in public health and in scientific communication need to “think harder” about how they purvey honesty when speaking to younger people.

“At a minimum, our findings suggest scientists working on public health matters and others concerned with scientific communication should think harder about how to communicate trustworthiness and honesty and, specifically, about how the generation currently in their impressionable years—‘Generation Z’—perceives such attributes,” Aksoy added.