Since 2018, 3M has launched an annual State of Science Index to track public attitudes towards science across the world. But for 2020, the company conducted two surveys, a Pre-Pandemic Wave and a Pandemic Pulse Wave survey, finding that science skepticism has declined for the first time in three years, and that there is an increased public understanding of the importance of science in our daily lives.
In the Pre-Pandemic Wave survey, representative samples of 1,000 adults (aged 18+) in 18 countries, including China, Mexico and the US, were asked to complete a 15-20 minute long survey to assess their attitude towards science. Among the pre-pandemic survey findings, there was a rise in science skepticism to 35%, from an original 29% in 2018.
“As the pandemic sort of spread, the question was: has the relationship with science changed for people as this is going on?” says Jayshree Seth, who is a corporate scientist and the chief science advocate at 3M.
In the summer of 2020, 3M launched a second survey, titled the Pandemic Pulse Wave, to understand whether public attitudes changed during Covid-19. 1,000 adults were asked a series of questions in 11 of the 14 countries from the Pre-Pandemic survey. India, Mexico, and South Africa were excluded due to logistical reasons.
When comparing the two surveys, there were a few key findings.
Firstly, there was a decline in science skepticism for the first time in three years. Specifically, when respondents were asked about the following sentence, “I am skeptical of science,” the percent who agreed fell by seven points between the Pre-Pandemic (35%) and Pandemic Pulse (28%).
Similarly, public trust in science has increased from 85% (Pre-Pandemic) to 89% (Pandemic Pulse), as well as in scientists, from 80% to 86%. When asked about whether people’s actions should follow scientific evidence in order to contain the spread of Covid-19, a majority (92%) of survey respondents “somewhat” (47%) or “completely” (45%) agreed. In the US, 90% of respondents agreed with this statement.
“[It’s] because science is being talked about, it’s in the conversation,” says Seth. She also points out that interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more likely (54%) that individuals will advocate for science, compared to the Pre-Pandemic (20%). Seth says that “this is great news. They’re seeing the scientific process sort of play out, and the importance of scientists and science and all of that, so I think that’s key.”
There have been additional surveys which have previously gauged public trust in science and scientists. In the summer of 2019, the Wellcome Trust, a research charity based in London, published the Wellcome Global Monitor study. This was a survey of around 140,000 individuals living in over 140 countries, which reported that scientists, doctors and nurses enjoy a high level of trust globally, but that half of the world knows little about science, and about one in five individuals feel excluded from the benefits of science.
“It’s difficult to compare the two studies directly,” says Imran Khan, the head of public engagement at the Wellcome Trust. “But I think what I can say is that obviously, any potential signs that science is being more trusted is a good thing. I think it’s difficult to say that we’re looking at a long-term trend just from one year’s data, and obviously, there’s the context with Covid[-19].”
Khan says that the second Wellcome Global Monitor study is now underway, with new questions about mental health and Covid-19. Results are expected to be published next year.
While the Covid-19 pandemic was a top concern among respondents in the 3M State of Science Index, there were other themes that emerged too, including climate change and equity in STEM education. In particular, when survey respondents were asked about which global health challenges the world should prioritize solving today, their top responses were finding a cure for emerging viruses (80%) and ongoing diseases (62%), followed by mitigating the effects of climate change (51%) and addressing unemployment (46%).
“The caveat I would give is that science needs to make good on that claim […] that scientists are working for the benefit of the world and our collective health, otherwise that increase in trust could be quite fragile,” adds Khan. “If science doesn’t make good on that — if we are where we are in six to twelve months time, and scientists haven’t succeeded in showing progress […] we may also see an increase in distrust in science, which again I say is why governments need to support science, support scientists and make sure that the products of science do reach the world’s most vulnerable and at risk.”
Khan’s sentiments are also reflected in the 3M State of Science Index, where 83% of survey respondents “somewhat” (49%) or “completely” (34%) agreed that national governments should be allocating more money to scientific research in their 2021 budgets.
“The pandemic has just reminded us, firstly, how crucial science is, and secondly, how crucial the relationship between science and society is,” says Khan. “We can have a Covid[-19] vaccine, or we can have many Covid[-19] vaccines, but if people genuinely don’t believe that science has created them with the best intent, they might not do much […] We can’t just stay in our labs and do the science, and fund science. We really have to understand how societies, and how people, engage with the science — whether they trust it or not, whether they have a sense that science is working in their interests. So I think that this kind of research is more important than ever.”
For Seth, the next step is to dig deeper, as 3M has done in each new iteration of their State of Science Index.
“Now we can dig deeper into perhaps how the pandemic played out. What are some things that allow you to raise your trust? […] What made you feel less skeptical of science?” says Seth. “Again, we theorize, we hypothesize and then we can generate that data — just digging deeper into those questions.”