Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Science’s trust problem

Science, like the media, seeks to reset relations with the public

by Louise Lief

A couple of statistics convey the challenge ahead for scientists as their work is doubted and their policy contributions marginalized. In 2011, two-thirds of Americans could not name a single living scientist. By 2018, 84 percent could not. Scientists’ decreasing visibility is but one of several warning lights flashing on the civic dashboard. A majority of those who vote or lean Republican believe colleges and universities are having a negative impact on the country.

Like the media, science suffers from a trust problem. Science’s institutional priorities have long focused on research and professional publication rather than engaging the public. It will need to make structural changes to create incentives for trust-building activities like transparency and engagement — and philanthropy can play a crucial role to encourage such changes.

Over the past year, foundations have been discussing what their role should be to shore up these destabilized pillars of democracy. A conversation that began last fall at the National Academy of Sciences continued this month in a different setting, at the Media Impact Funders forum in Philadelphia. Elizabeth Christopherson, president and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation and one of the moving forces behind this dialogue, says her foundation, which funds science, media, and civic programs, kept bumping into themes common to all three, prompting a deeper look.

The venue, the American Philosophical Society, was intentionally symbolic. Founded 275 years ago by Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries to “promote useful knowledge” to benefit mankind, it was the first official scientific establishment in the American colonies.

The scientific-minded men who created the Society wore many hats. They were also journalists, lawyers, clergymen, merchants, farmers, doctors, inventors, politicians and/or diplomats. They relished their multiple identities and the resulting cross-fertilization of ideas. “Science and democracy were closely linked in the Founders’ minds,” said Brent Glass, Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Colonial America was admired internationally not for its military power or economic strength, but for its scientific accomplishments, political freedom, and religious liberty.

The incentive systems at many scientific establishments place little value on and offer few rewards for public engagement. In fact, many scientists are actively discouraged from engaging with the public.

Recently, the connection between science, democracy, and the public good has become more tenuous in the public’s mind. Science, like media, can be a force for good or ill. Ethical, moral and political questions and difficult tradeoffs come into play. Addressing the issue of trust in the media the following day, Upworthy’s founder Eli Pariser said the public is asking basic questions: “What is your motivation and intent? Do you have my best interests at heart? Do you care about me?”

These same questions hold true for science. Scientists have long relied on their competency for credibility, but in our current moment that is not enough. Pariser added that giving the person you are addressing a sense of agency and empowerment is a strong predictor of engagement. Both science and media, however, have often fallen short in that regard.

The incentive systems at many scientific establishments place little value on and offer few rewards for public engagement. In fact, many scientists are actively discouraged from engaging with the public, said Brooke Smith, director of public engagement at the Kavli Foundation. Publishing in peer review journals and securing research grants are the overarching imperatives. Everything else is seen as a potential distraction.

Even when scientists do interact with the public, said Smith, they often lecture at them rather than listen to them or engage in a meaningful two-way exchange. This approach, what scientists call the “deficit model,” has been shown to be ineffective but remains the dominant way scientists communicate with the rest of us.

The costs to science and society of clinging to inadequate and outmoded means of communication have become painfully clear in the past year, as scientific expertise has been ignored or shunted aside. “Informing is great,” said Anthony Dudo, a communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “but before you can have a mutually beneficial information exchange, you had better trust one another.”

The costs to science and society of clinging to inadequate and outmoded means of communication have become painfully clear in the past year, as scientific expertise has been ignored or shunted aside.

Transparency is a major pathway to trust. The media, said Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine, is now at “an interesting moment of transparency and reckoning.” She described National Geographic’s efforts to grapple with its own troubling past depicting race. Other media organizations are also revisiting their histories and publicly acknowledging past sins in the belief it will strengthen their institutions for the future. Science can also benefit from similar introspection.

What can philanthropy do about all of this? Plenty.

In this hyper-partisan era, it is uniquely situated to act as a catalyst for change and driver of new civic-minded initiatives in ways government and organizations preoccupied with institutional survival can’t or won’t. Some measures it can take:

Create new incentives. The rising generation of scientists, graduate students, post-docs and junior faculty have felt the impact of growing public doubts about the scientific enterprise and are dying to engage with the public. Their dissatisfaction with the status quo has become so pronounced that institutions like the University of Texas, University of Wisconsin, and University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign are adding a public engagement option to the criteria used to rate performance and decide promotions and tenure.

But these young scientists are at the most vulnerable points in their careers, when risk-taking can carry heavy costs. The philanthropic community can assist them by telegraphing the high value it places on public engagement, explicitly and consistently raising it as an institutional priority and giving it muscle through grant-making, awards, and other forms of recognition. “Unless these incentives are fiscally incentivized in the grant structures,” warned University of Wisconsin professor Dietram Scheufele, “we will have a slower process.”

Give participatory researchers a seat at the table. Participatory research methods and citizen science researchers who gather data with community involvement are still viewed with suspicion by some in the scientific establishment. They are often absent from discussions on science and civic engagement, which is a shame. One of the most famous practitioners is Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who has built his career around the idea of science for the public good, and who exposed Flint, Michigan’s lead-tainted water problem.

This year the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Edwards its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, but for many years he wandered in the wilderness, his methods and motives questioned. Last month, in a rare victory for science and communities, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded him and a group of scientists a $1.9 million grant to build a national model that will help communities test their water for lead contamination. The processes and feedback loops Edwards and others are developing working with the public, particularly marginalized communities, hold great promise for tackling civic problems and for science in the public square. Their greater involvement would enrich the discussion.

Encourage transparency as a core value. Many journalists and scientists mistakenly assume the public knows how they work and make decisions. Mostly, they don’t. Transparency is critical to building trust, and many news organizations are already embracing it as a core value. Scientists and academics can too. The Conversation, an organization that helps academics share their expertise with the public through journalistic articles placed in a wide array of news outlets, has a policy requiring each academic writer to complete a disclosure statement that appears beside each article stating whether he or she has received any grants or specific financial support connected to the views being expressed.

Support cross-disciplinary collaborations and creative risk-taking. Wide ranging interests and insatiable curiosity enabled the Founding Fathers to create a new form of government that astonished the world. The connections between science, media, democracy and the public good are as strong today as they were 275 years ago. Cross-disciplinary approaches, with each party viewed as an equal partner, can help recreate the Founders’ “secret sauce” that leads to problem solving and invention.

In the evening, the forum screened Inventing Tomorrow, a documentary that follows the fortunes of several high school students from the US and abroad as they compete in Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair. Director Laura Nix wanted the film to focus on what motivated the teens. In every case, they were driven by concern for their families and their communities who were struggling with local environmental problems.

The combination of curiosity and caring drove them to excel under difficult circumstances. It’s also a winning formula for science and the media in the current moment, as they seek to regain the public’s trust.


Louise Lief is an independent consultant. She was scholar-in-residence at American University School of Communication Investigative Reporting Workshop, and a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, where she founded the Science and the Media Project.