Four ways to maintain trust and interest in science beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a science communicator, the pandemic has led to some of the most important yet challenging work of my career.
The same digital media tools that I use to share scientific information and that so many of us use to stay informed and connected have also been leveraged to spread disinformation that undermines public health efforts to keep people safe.
While this disinformation certainly has caused damage and feels very loud, according to data collected last summer, fortunately, our skepticism of science has drastically declined in light of COVID-19.
The 2020 3M State of Science Index found that 21% of Canadians reported being skeptical of science, down from the 29% of Canadians who responded as such before the onset of COVID-19.
These Canadian statistics reflect the global response: 37% of respondents worldwide reported being skeptical of science before the pandemic, whereas only 28% did when surveyed during the pandemic. It may feel that skepticism in science is growing, but this is the lowest incidence of skepticism that has been found by the 3M State of Science Index in its three years running.
This is reason for some much-welcomed optimism.
Further, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that people who work in scientific fields remain the most frequently trusted source of science information for Canadians among the sources surveyed. This group is followed by public health organizations and governments, documentaries, regular news outlets, friends or family, colleagues, company websites, politicians, social media and lastly, celebrities.
This means our communication efforts as a scientific community can be impactful and, in the context of the current pandemic, save lives. But the prevailing infodemic despite declining skepticism of science reminds us that this is no easy task and requires great care.
Fortunately, we can take a data-driven approach thanks to real-time surveys like the 3M State of Science Index. While no singular blog nor action could neutralize the infodemic alone, below are four takeaways from this year’s survey to help us unite towards this mission.
Four ways we can continue to build trust in science during and after the pandemic:
- Highlight the standards of the scientific process.
The trust maintained by the science community is a double-edged sword, as “science speak,” white coats, and academic titles can be used to legitimize disinformation. To this end, we need to go beyond the slogan of “listen to experts” because those with credentials may also share misinformation or disinformation (and similarly, those without may share quality science!). Instead, we should showcase the real strength of science by sharing the rigour of its process and emphasizing the years of work that goes into every new discovery.
- Be more transparent.
89% of Canadians reported that they either somewhat or completely trust scientists, and it’s of utmost importance we nurture that trust with transparency. This is particularly important in uncertain times and in communications about topics like vaccination. The more we continue to set a high standard for transparency, the more those sharing disinformation with an ulterior motive may stand out.
- Focus on engagement with science communications.
We must continue to innovate new ways to share science with new audiences and help keep them engaged long-term to reinforce regular science-based communication streams. Whether that is through chalk drawings on a sidewalk, creating TikToks, or tweetorials of new publications, there are so many forms of media to engage audiences with science. Encouragingly, 46% of Canadians said COVID-19 made them more likely to take an interest in science, and 50% said they were now more likely to advocate for science. Significant effort should be invested to maintain and further strengthen these blooming relationships between scientific communities and the public they serve through grants, awards, and training infrastructure.
- Inspire people to become advocates for science.
If we want to maintain interest in science even when it’s given less of a spotlight, we should continue to empower people to be active participants in science. Misinformation may spread because, while people primarily trust scientists for scientific information, when it comes to the pandemic, it’s easy for things to feel more personal than in the domain of science, and compelling narratives can win attention over data. The more we can share science through the power of storytelling, the easier it will be for others to further spread that accurate information, so it is prevalent above the misinformation.
Importantly, all of these can only be effective in the context of inclusivity and accessibility. To really ensure no one is excluded from scientific conversations, we need to prioritize the accessibility of our science communication and address the lack of representation and inclusivity amongst science communicators and STEM fields.
And the more of us who pursue and support evidence-based approaches for science communication, the sooner we can get there.
Looking forward to the 2021 3M State of Science Index.
This past year has presented many challenges for us all. However, the possibilities for a future where science is trusted, valued, and genuinely participatory is one worth the investment and support. To think where we’d be right now if we had already reached that future is reason enough to motivate me to continue communicating science passionately.
Together, we can renew trust in science and drive change for a brighter tomorrow. I am hoping that the 2021 3M State of Science Index will show further empirical evidence that we’re making progress.
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Disclaimer: Sam is a 3M-sponsored writer. The author was given full creative and academic freedom in producing the piece. The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author.