By BERT GAMBINI
Published October 9, 2023
A UB communication researcher has identified five factors associated with the public’s perception of science.
Those factors are part of a tool that was tested to determine the state of science in the U.S. using a national sample of 1,054 American adults, conducted in collaboration with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
The results, published in the journal PNAS, suggest the differences separating conservatives and liberals when it comes to both supporting federal funding of research (finding solutions to existing problems) and basic research funding (how processes or concepts work) are nuanced, and go beyond a simple divide in trust.
“Trust is a key factor when it comes to supporting science, but measuring trust alone does not capture the whole picture,” says Yotam Ophir, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and the study’s lead author. “In the U.S., science is funded to a large degree by the government. Many recent scientific breakthroughs, like the development of the internet, DNA analysis and nanotechnology, were all made possible by government investments in research.
“Knowing what may encourage people to support that funding is critical.”
The new tool developed by Ophir’s research team expands on limited definitions of trust to build a more comprehensive measure that provides a sense for how Americans — and various subpopulations — feel about science. In Ophir’s model, trust is part of the tool’s “credibility” measure, which also includes the ideas of competence, integrity and openness.
These are measured along additional perceptions, specifically that scientists are not only credible, but prudent (a measure that takes morality and accountability) and unbiased (in ways that prevent their personal beliefs from interfering or influencing their professional work), and that science itself is self-correcting (meaning that mistakes are identified and being addressed) and beneficial (that the science yields useful outcomes).
Ophir says conservatives were less likely to be supportive when they perceived that scientists failed to overcome their biases. The interaction between political ideologies and the prudence and beneficial factors was significant only when predicting basic research support.
“There are no differences between conservatives and liberals when perceptions of benefit were low, but when those perceptions were high, liberals showed more support for funding than conservatives.”
Among those perceiving that scientists lack prudence, liberals were more likely to support funding basic research than conservatives, but the difference disappeared when perceptions of prudence were high.
“The model we present in this paper is an important measurement tool that we hope will become the standard for scientific and governmental organizations that want to understand how public perceptions of science and scientists change over time,” says Ophir.
The tool can track gaps between how science is presented — everything from climate change to vaccine efficacy — and how it’s perceived by the public.
“If we learn why specific people resist science, then we can become better at crafting effective messages that explain how science works, that clarify misunderstandings about science, while also finding and addressing vulnerabilities that could lead to misperceptions,” says Ophir.
“We hope the findings from this study would be useful for people who care about science and wish to improve public acceptance of science.”
Ophir and his co-authors — Dror Walter, Georgia State University assistant professor of communication; Patrick Jamieson, director, Annenberg Health & Risk Communication Institute; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director, Annenberg Public Policy Center — plan to continue to develop this line of research by testing the applicability of the model in other important scientific contexts.