By Dr Jen Bardsley

12 May 2020 - 15:57

Scientist placing a vial on a shelf
'If the bird is in our garden, we all have a stake.' Photo ©

Poyraz Tütüncü

How can we build public trust in science? By getting people involved in research. The British Council's Global Head of Science, Dr Jen Bardsley, tells us why. 

We all encounter medical science

A person can avoid learning about science and still live comfortably, but we all have bodies that age and occasionally break down. 

When the decisions we are asked to make, such as social distancing and avoiding travel, are personal, sensitive and have consequences, the ability to trust in expert advice and opinion becomes more important.

As the research community in the UK has emphasised over the last several years, the ability to share scientific activity and knowledge with the wider public has never been more important. Medicine in particular has emphasised patient and public involvement in research activity, by making this a requirement in grant applications. 

But we are surrounded by misinformation

One example is the association of Covid-19 with 5G masts for communication, rather than its viral cause. This reflects a lack of public trust in the work of scientists and research institutions. 

Researchers, outreach specialists and science communicators have tried to break down barriers between universities and communities. Those efforts include science festivals like the Edinburgh Science Festival, and public events like the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures. But despite the efforts, some audiences are hard to reach.

Too many people find science and research inaccessible, remote, or simply not part of their lives

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The results of this disconnect are seen in the persistence of the anti-vaccination movement, or the denial of climate change as the global emergency that it is. And recently, doubts about Covid-19 warnings. 

All of this has led to an underlying, persistent deficit of public trust in science and research

How do we build trust in science and scientific decision-making? We need that trust to implement the profound social changes that will be required of us to address existential threats such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance and Covid-19.

To build greater public trust we must focus on inclusivity

Emphasis on patient and public involvement in research design has changed clinical research. Patients are now involved in research design, data collection and communication, resulting in improved trust and increased involvement in clinical trials which leads to improved research outcomes. That patient involvement has made research-based interventions in medicine more likely to achieve its desired result, as well as planning for the NHS and the changing needs of its patient population. 

Could we achieve something similar in engineering and design, or the social sciences? Citizen science initiatives could turn everyone into a data collector or research participant, encouraging a sense of investment and ownership in the findings. 

These research activities are often fun to do, such as the RSPB garden bird watch activities each spring. They can also involve participation and make people a witness to environmental change.

If the bird is in our garden, we all have a stake

We are all born experimentalists. But in too many cases, through our education and career directions, we are excluded from science and research. Or we don't think it applies to our lives. Changing this perception could build public trust in science and research – necessary to address the 21st century's challenges.  

Find our opportunities in science.

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