Science, Trust and Policymaking

A British Academy funded research project


People – including policymakers – have complex and dynamic relationships with science, science advice, scientific evidence and with claims made about science. People’s scientific literacy - levels of knowledge and interest in technical scientific debates and information – differs over time and across subjects. People’s attitudes to science and scientists (in general) may be shaped by their experiences and values, and/or by specific topics or events. Science and scientists also have a relationship with policymakers and with government, sometimes mediated by government scientists and scientific advisers. For instance, policymakers may call on scientific advisers to develop and explain policy decisions. Members of the public may then assess the trustworthiness of the scientific claims in relation to their views about policymakers, advisors, science, as well as their beliefs and values. Although beyond the scope of this interim report, a clarification of the difference between science, scientific literacy, claims, research, advice and information, and publics’ relationships with each would be informative.

A common – although becoming rarer – belief amongst scientists is that building greater awareness of science and increasing scientific literacy amongst the public (often called ‘public understanding of science’) would increase support for scientific claims and related policy action. More recently has come a realisation that science and scientists are also shaped by values and beliefs; leading to the ‘public engagement with science’ approach which seeks to generate shared understanding and improved dialogue around issues to which scientific research and advice is relevant. (Stilgoe, Lock and Wilsdon, 2014). This project focuses primarily on this latter situation, seeking to understand how publics respond to scientific advice offered in the service of policymaking, drawing in insights about generalised attitudes to science, and from the literature on how evidence is perceived and used in public and political debate. Science advice here is understood to be the delivery of scientific expertise from across the research disciplines, via a range of mechanisms including advisory committees, boards, and specific roles within government (Gundersen and Holst, 2022). The wider literature about how publics are formed by, respond to, and engage with scientific discourse is drawn on, but not comprehensively summarised in this project.

Our Approach

We have conducted a literature review to frame subsequent work, which includes:

- documentary analysis around three case studies (precision breeding, Clean Air Zones, and Monkeypox)

- Interviews with policymakers, commentators, and researchers connected with each case. More information can be found here.

- analysis of social media on each case (led by Sheffield University) 

- a series of workshops to develop empirical materials to enhance our understanding of what makes evidence compelling and trusted by different audiences (led by Sense about Science).

We are also working with a team at Birkbeck who are exploring citizen's responses to science using Natural Language Processing. 

This what we’ve learned so far

Key messages arising from our project so far include:

1. Public institutions – government, science, media – are felt to be trustworthy where they are perceived to be competent (reliable), honest (open, accountable and transparent), and responsible (caring, benevolent and fair). 

2. Trust in science and scientists is generally high in the UK and can be supported by clear and open discussion 

3. Framings: Policy challenges may be viewed as ‘scientific’ depending on how stakeholders ‘frame’ them. 

4. Message and messenger: These ‘framings’ shape who is considered an authoritative or expert voice, and what evidence is considered relevant 

5. Overflows: public, science and gov relationships 

6. The production and delivery of science advice is where the unrealistic norms of science as an independent arbiter of truth comes into contact with social realities 

7. Instead of placing the responsibility on publics to become more trusting, science and policy systems should seek to become more trustworthy (competent, open, and responsible). 

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