30 JANUARY 2015 • VOL 347 ISSUE 6221 459
There is a wide opinion gap between scientists and the general public in the United States when it comes to their attitudes about the state of science and science-related policy. According to survey re- sults released this week by the Pew Research Cen- ter, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS),* when
asked whether U.S. scientific achievements are either
the best or among the world’s
best, only 54% of the public
said “yes,” compared to 92%
of the scientists. Such disparity is alarming because it ultimately affects both science
policy and scientific progress. How can we bridge this
gap? Forget the staged “town
hall” meetings—studies show
that they are not very
effective. What does work is
respectful bidirectional communication, where scientists
truly listen, as well as speak,
to the public.
What accounts for this
large opinion gap? Hot topics such as the safety of eating genetically modified
(GM) foods, the importance
of using animals in scientific
research, the reality of hu-man-caused climate change,
the safety of vaccinations,
and human evolution are
among the issues that cause
substantial disquiet among the public. Most scientists
(88%) said that eating GM foods is generally safe, for example, whereas a mere 37% of the public agreed. Similarly, the 2014 survey reports that the public’s stance on
climate change has become “increasingly contentious,”
as a greater percentage of the public (25% in 2014 versus 11% in 2009) believes that there is no solid evidence
that Earth is getting warmer—a result that is inconsistent
with the broad scientific consensus.
These findings should come as no real surprise, given
increasing public attention to relatively rare events that,
even though infrequent, undermine the public’s trust of
science, such as conflicts of interest, the failure to repli-
cate certain results, or “silly-sounding” grant titles that
imply wasteful spending. Among scientists, life is seen as
being much more difficult than it appeared to be 5 years
ago, when Pew Research conducted a similar survey.
Only 52% of scientists say this is “a good time for science,” down from 76% in 2009. This discouragement is
not surprising either, given the long-standing threats
to research and development funding and the resultant very low success rates for grant proposals.
But complaining about these difficulties does noth-
ing to improve respect or support for science among
policy-makers or the public.
Speaking up for the importance of science to society is our only hope, and
scientists must not shy away
from engaging with the public, even on the most polarizing science-based topics.
Scientists need to speak
clearly with journalists, who
provide a great vehicle for
translating the nature and
implications of their work.
Scientists should also meet
with members of the public and discuss what makes
each side uncomfortable. In
these situations, scientists
must respond forthrightly
to public concerns. In other
words, there needs to be a
conversation, not a lecture.
The public’s perceptions
of scientists’ expertise and
trustworthiness are very
important, but they are not
enough. Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels.
It can be compromised whenever information confronts
people’s personal, religious, or political views, and whenever scientific facts provoke fear or make people feel that
they have no control over a situation. The only recourse is
to have genuine, respectful dialogues with people. Good
venues are community clubs, science museums, science
fairs, and religious institutions. Working with small
groups is more effective than working with large groups.
Fortunately, there is a growing science base to help guide
5 years from now will bear better news.
more effective public engagement of this kind.†
The opinion gap must not be allowed to swell into an
unbridgeable chasm. There is ample opportunity to do
something about the situation now. Hopefully, a survey
– Alan I. Leshner
Bridging the opinion gap
Alan I. Leshner is
the Chief Executive
Ofcer of AAAS
10.1126/science.aaa7477 www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/science2015. †B. Fischhoff, D. A. Scheufele, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 13583 (2014).
“Speaking up for the
importance of science to society
is our only hope…”