Science: it’s more complicated than that

Science is continually the subject of controversy. In 2014 we have witnessed, among other things, faked stem cell research, hard-hitting UN reports on climate change, hotly disputed by a minority, and a devastating blow to the dream of commercial space travel.

Despite this, science has been gaining in stature: the majority of British people view it in a positive light. Our Public Attitudes to Science 2014 study shows that 81% think ‘science will make people’s lives easier’, and 55% think that ‘the benefits of science outweigh any harmful effects’. The public are much more positive now than they were 25 years ago. Substantially more people agree that it is important to know about science in their daily lives (72%, versus 57% in 1988), and fewer now think that ‘science makes our way of life change too fast’ (34%, versus 49%).

People are also upbeat about the contribution science makes to the UK economy. Most agree ‘scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth in the UK’ (76%), and 91% agree that ‘young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity’.

Even more heartening for scientists, 79% agree that, ‘even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which advances knowledge should be funded by the government’, while 65% disagree that funding ‘should be cut because the money can be better spent elsewhere’.

Does this mean we are entering a new age of reason? Of course not. Digging deeper into the results shows some important contradictions, rooted in public anxieties.

Despite 71% thinking scientists are ‘honest’, many people still have concerns about hidden data, or about the intentions of scientists and researchers. Some 35% think that scientists adjust their findings to get the answers they want. However, this may be due to a lack of understanding about how scientists actually work – 29% believe that scientific research is never or only occasionally checked by other scientists before being published.

As on many topics, public opinions of science are formed without any deep thought process. Even among people who report that they do not feel informed about scientific research and developments, 70% still agree that ‘scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth in the UK’.

Enthusiasm for science

Informing people more about a science topic or new technology may not bring the desired results – on the issue of GM crops, perceptions of risks and benefits are more polarised among those who feel very well informed on the subject.

But this should not dissuade scientists from engaging with the general public. Most of us think that ‘scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think’ (69%), and that they should ‘spend more time discussing the social and ethical implications of their research with the public’ (68%).

Our research has consistently shown that the key to successful communication is to understand that there are multiple ‘publics’. While people want to engage, not everyone will do so in the same way, or through the same channels. As always, policymakers should reflect on who they are aiming to engage and how. While some people will relish the technical details, others care more about the social and ethical implications of the work.

While the UK public’s attitudes to science are overwhelmingly positive, this does not reduce the need for dialogue. The public may already support various scientific and technological changes in principle, but there are many concerns beneath this, and these are partly driven by confusion over how scientists go about their work, and what their intentions are. In 2015, scientists will, more than ever, need to communicate these points, and tailor their communication for different audiences – very few people will engage with the hard scientific facts alone.