Enlarge /. Scientists do what they do best.
Last week the Pew Research Center released the results of a series of surveys that looked at how the public in 20 different countries view science. While the Pew has the benefit of over a decade of data in some countries and large survey populations, it has suffered somewhat from it in time. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic brought science to the fore in the news and political debate, giving everyone a personal interest in keeping up with the latest medical advice.
If anything could change the public's view of science, it appears to be the pandemic. And the pew checked a little too soon to find out.
But the bank isn't the only organization that does this type of survey. Back in 2018, 3M (a company that employs many scientists and engineers) began sharing the results of its own international surveys on public attitudes towards science. And by this year, the polls had run long enough to show a general loss of confidence in science and scientists – at least before the pandemic. However, in response to COVID-19, 3M went back and conducted a second set of surveys and found the trend completely reversed, with confidence in science showing a sudden surge.
Before and after
The 3M surveys were aimed at a demographically representative group of over 1,000 participants in 14 countries: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Japan, Poland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Great Britain and the USA. The survey data planned for this year was collected late last year but was completed before the first known cases of COVID-19. To track changes in thinking caused by pandemics, additional surveys were conducted in July and August after most countries went through an initial wave of pandemic cases. These surveys were conducted in all countries except India and South Africa, and 3M plans to add Mexico and the United Arab Emirates.
Some of these countries – China and India – have populations so high that a sample of 1,000 will not be fully representative, regardless of how well the demographics reflect the country. For the most part, however, 3M has summarized the responses in all countries. Detailed country-specific analyzes have to wait.
There is bad news and good news. Over the three years of the survey, the number of people who replied that they were "skeptical of science" had increased slowly and steadily from 29 percent to 35 percent. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic spread, those numbers fell to 28 percent.
Something similar happened with regard to trust, with the post-pandemic responses showing the highest levels of trust in science recorded since 3M's survey began. The same goes for trust in the scientists themselves. The actual increase was small (around 5 percent), but the numbers were initially high. If you start at around 80 to 85 percent there isn't much room to grow.
(If you look out for these percentages, you will find that some people say they are skeptical of science and trust science. This is not uncommon in such surveys and may represent individuals who will be responding to the various contexts of the questions posed.)
The polls showed a slight increase in their perception of the importance of science in their lives. Those who rated it "very important" gained 10 points (44 to 54 percent) between pre- and post-pandemic surveys. Those who rated it very important to society at large rose by a similar amount, from 58 percent to 69 percent. Between 70 and 80 percent of people also felt that the pandemic had led them to prioritize funding for science and the role of science in society and healthcare. 92 percent believed that people's actions to respond to the pandemic should be backed by science.
Role of government
While many governments were known for not being able to fight the pandemic effectively, people still had high expectations of them to advance science. The top four answers for things government should address were affordable health care, food safety, air quality, and plastic contamination of the oceans, and all respondents were over 80 percent interviewed. Those numbers actually rose slightly after the pandemic, with around 85 percent of the public in favor of government involvement. That's roughly the same percentage that favored government action to fight the pandemic.
Of the 77 percent of people who wanted science to get more funding, about 60 percent felt it should come from the government, a number almost double what those who thought it should Corporations or charities should be the source of funding.
It was not surprising that governments should take the lead on issues they were already dealing with. This included equitable access to science education, where 62 percent felt that the government bears most of the responsibility. Fifty-two percent said the same thing about climate change, while corporations came in second at 21 percent.
Beyond the pandemic
The pre-pandemic survey also addressed many of the scientific questions that had seemed important prior to the arrival of COVID-19. When asked what problems other than health care people think could be solved by science, all five responses focused on environmental problems, with climate change being the highest-rated concern. Even after the pandemic, environmental and health concerns were in a statistical heat when people were asked to choose a topic where ignoring science has negative consequences.
While there were many ways that science believed science could contribute to environmental problems, there were no dramatic differences in how people prioritized.
Given the importance people attach to science in general, there are obvious questions as to why more people are not involved in science – and why the population of people who are different is not more diverse. In the pre-pandemic surveys, 3M asked about some structural barriers that keep people from engaging in science. The researchers found that around a third of people under the age of 40 felt they had been deterred from practicing science, while only 10 to 15 percent of the older participants did.
Over a third of respondents said the lack of classes in their schools was an obstacle, an issue that was more prominent in developing countries. About a third said they were told they weren't smart enough and another 25 percent said science was only for geeks. And a quarter mentioned being discouraged because of their ethnicity or gender – but that number reached 50 percent in the United States. Income differences also played a role: Less than half of low-income parents said their children had participated in science activities, while the number of high-income parents was nearly 70 percent.
Overall, any result other than what these polls show would be quite worrying. We're in the middle of a pandemic that won't pose a minor threat until scientists develop either a vaccine or a highly effective therapy. Meanwhile, epidemiologists have helped determine which public health measures are most effective in limiting the spread of the virus. And while all of this was going on, devastating storms and forest fires have reminded us that some of the pre-pandemic crises like climate change have not gone away.
With all of this in mind, it would be extremely worrying if the people didn't look to the only people who can save us. I'm a little less concerned that I wasn't convinced beforehand that the survey would produce these results.