Trust in Science Increased During the COVID-19 Pandemic, but Became More Polarized

Because trust in science predicts willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine, the results of this study have significant public health consequences.

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock/JennDoesStock

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock/JennDoesStock

The COVID-19 pandemic, and especially the vaccine rollout, unveiled our societal trust in science.

A new study, funded by the Genetics Society and published in PLOS One, used the COVID-19 pandemic “as a natural experiment on trust modulation as it has enabled unprecedented exposure of science.” The investigators conducted a survey study to gauge whether average trust in science changed during the pandemic, whether this change in trust was the same for all people, and if trust in science differed from person to person, what accounted for this variance?

The Survey

The investigators surveyed over 2000 adults across the United Kingdom. Respondents were first asked, “Would you say you now trust scientists more, less, or about the same as you did at the start of the pandemic?” An identical structure was used to questions that replaced “scientists” with “geneticists” and “geologists”; geologists have no obvious connection to the COVID-19 pandemic and thus this question was treated as a control.

The participants were also asked whether their trust in pharmaceutical companies had changed during the pandemic. Half of the respondents were asked, “Would you say you now trust pharmaceutical companies, e.g. Pfizer, more, less or about the same as you did at the start of the pandemic?” “Pfizer” was used as an example because it had gained recognition as a vaccine provider.

However, the other half of participants were asked an identical question, but with “GlaxoSmithKline” (GSK) used as the example instead. At the time of the survey, GSK was not associated with the pandemic or COVID-19 vaccines. The study authors explained, “The results between respondent groups were compared to give prima facie evidence on whether a corporation’s effort of delivering a vaccine, and the media exposure associated with it, could have impacted trust.”

Next, the respondents were asked to what extent they would have agreed with the statement “those in charge of new developments in genetic science cannot be trusted to act in society’s interests” at the start of the pandemic. They were then asked whether this initial view had changed over the course of the last year.

Finally, the participants were asked whether they would take a COVID-19 if offered one. The investigators accounted for persons who had already been vaccinated, persons who were willing to receive a vaccine (but were perhaps not eligible), and persons who would not accept a vaccine.

The Results

A total of 2035 adult UK participants answered the survey. While 60% (n = 1215) expressed no change in trust toward scientists, 33% (n = 673) reported an increase in trust, and 7% (n = 147) reported a decrease. “Our data thus indicates that, through the pandemic, there has been a net positive change in trust in scientists,” the study authors wrote. This was confirmed by 79% of respondents showing no change in trust in geneticists, and 90% showing no change in trust in geologists.

Responding to the question gauging trust of pharmaceutical companies, around 60% of participants indicated their trust in neither Pfizer nor GSK had changed. Of those who did express a change in trust, there were more respondents who said their trust in either company had increased rather than decreased.

The investigators also found that there was a significant polarization between prepandemic trust and current trust. “This increase in variance could be consistent with those originally positive becoming more positive while those originally negative have become more negative,” they wrote.

Overall, these results indicate that science activity and communication during the COVID-19 pandemic has largely led to increased trust, contrasting with earlier reports. However, after controlling for demographic factors such as education level, political affiliation, religious belief, and age, people who held a negative view of science prior to the pandemic became even more negative; people who were originally positive toward science became even more positive.

“Our research shows that although trust in science has increased overall, it has also become more polarized,” said Laurence Hurst, a professor and director at the University of Bath Milner Center for Evolution and one of this study’s principal investigators.

“Why does this matter? For many years it was assumed that scientific knowledge is what determines attitude to science, hence the proliferation in science communication activities to increase understanding. Our study provides evidence to support the theory that trust, rather than knowledge, is what matters.”

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