Monday, August 1, 2011

Public and Private Science: It's all about perception

The recently published results of the Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey in the UK suggest that industry needs to do more to promote science.

The PAS survey, conducted by IPSOS MORI in association with the British Science Association and the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, found that there was a major disparity between the trust that the public placed in scientists working in the public and NGO sector and that placed in private-sector scientists.

When asked whether they trusted scientists to "follow any rules and regulations" 83% said they trusted scientists working in a university. There was also a large amount of trust placed in scientists working for the Government (72%), environmental groups (72%) and charities (76%).

However, when asked about industry scientists, just over half (56%) had the same amount of confidence in scientists doing the right thing.

This trust in university-based scientists is, as the PAS survey notes, in spite of the involvement of academics in the recent "climategate" controversy. It also doesn’t necessarily recognise the fact that while researchers may be based in a university, they may be paid by funding from industry sources.

Interestingly, in workshops to tease out the detail from the survey, participants tended to express the opinion that industry scientists were more interested in making money than in making genuine scientific discoveries. When the general public had the opportunity to speak with scientists in industry though, many of them viewed those scientists more positively.

The cliché of the crazy, money-mad scientist working for big-business is clearly just that: a cliché. However, trust is all about perception and while some would reasonably argue that nobody should trust a person simply based on their profession, there is no doubt that professionals do sometimes get ‘lumped in’ together as a homogenous bunch.

The general trend of a decreased level of trust in private versus public science though is not new. In the last PAS survey in 2008, 78% of respondents agreed that it was important that some scientists were not "linked to business" and 72% agreed that the independence of scientists is often "put at risk by the interest of their funders".

Indeed, the PAS survey from 2005 shows that people trust university-based scientists 48% less if they are funded by industry sources.

On the positive side, when scientists are compared to other professionals in the IPSOS MORI 'Trust in Professions' tracker, consistently more than 60% of respondents trust scientists to tell the truth. The latest survey of this type (2009) showed that 70% of the adult population of the UK generally trusted scientists to tell the truth. This was behind Clergy (71%), Judges and Professors (both on 80%), Teachers (88%) and Doctors (92%). Incidentally, Government ministers (16%) and politicians generally (13%) come bottom of that list.

So there is convincing evidence for a lack of trust on the part of the general public in industry-based scientists which is not mirrored in scientists working and funded from the public purse. There is a significant need then for private enterprise working in the sciences to ramp-up their communication with the general public and how they promote the sciences through their outreach work.

That isn't to say that some parts of industry aren't making significant contributions to the communication of science and the promotion of science amongst the general public. L'Oreal's support of the Women in Science programme is worthy of mention and a huge list of industry names have supported the Big Bang science and engineering fair, including Shell, Siemens and BAE.

Nevertheless, these new results suggest that nearly half of the general public mistrust scientists in industry. A concerted effort to communicate the value of privately funded scientific research to society is needed if we are to increase the levels of trust in science as a whole.


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