The state of science and society in 2022

As 2022 begins and the third year of the pandemic continues to put pressure on the scientific community and the public, it is worth considering the state of science and society. The main headline of Wellcome’s Global Monitor 2020: Covid-19 was that global public confidence in science and scientists increased during the pandemic. The largest of its kind, the survey involved 119,000 people in 113 countries, and seems to suggest that after a year of increased exposure to scientists, and with the first COVID-19 vaccines hailed as a scientific triumph, the value of science might not have eroded as badly as the common narrative – of a growing infodemic, reluctance to vaccination, protests against public health measures, and populist politicians – implies. Or does this interpretation paint a too rosy and simplistic picture of the relationship between science and society?
In fact, science has too often been attacked. In a survey of 300 scientists from Nature, dozens of researchers have shared stories of death threats, or threats of physical or sexual violence, for speaking out about COVID-19. Anti-science rhetoric has escalated through coordinated disinformation campaigns by anti-vaccine lobbyists and, in many countries, direct actions by politicians. Correspondence from Brazilian scientists describes how budget cuts, attacks on scientific autonomy and hostility to science by President Bolsonaro’s administration endanger the country’s future scientific development, as well as education, health public and the environment. The cuts could be reversed when Brazilians vote in this year’s presidential election, but the damage could be long lasting. How does this violence fit in with an increase in global trust?

Wellcome data also shows huge regional differences in trust in science and scientists. There were large increases in the percentage of respondents who reported trusting science in East Asia (mainly China), Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, no change in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and a decline in sub-Saharan Africa. So, the idea that confidence in science is universally high is simply wrong.

It has become difficult to disentangle where trust in government ends and trust in science begins. Wellcome found that trust in scientists was closely related to trust in national governments. Aside from Brazil, science and politics are generally not in opposition, but rather closely related. Indeed, some nations, where confidence in government is strong, recognize science as a vector of societal progress, even superpower aspirations, and scientists are hailed as national heroes. In China, for example, research budgets have increased throughout the pandemic, and chief scientists promoted to senior political positions have led the country’s response to the pandemic. In other cases, governments have tried to co-opt public trust in scientists (and overcome public distrust of politicians), using slogans like “follow the science”, even when do not. The line between science policy and government is blurring.

However, almost a third of those polled felt that their government did not place much or no value on the opinions of scientists. It is not clear whether this reflects a growing expectation of evidence-based science policy. With widespread protests against public health measures such as vaccination warrants and COVID passes, scientific opinion often appears to be at odds with society at large and individual freedoms. Nonetheless, the public has shown an appetite for scientific evidence and understanding during the pandemic, from R numbers to vaccine development. This appetite has not always been tempered by a recognition of the unknowns, uncertainty and the evolving nature of scientific knowledge. Modeling projections of infections, for example, could help dictate policy. But when the catastrophic number of infections is taken as an expectation and does not come true, public confidence can be undermined.

There is a need to strengthen science literacy, both from the public and to policy makers, and to communicate the caveats and limitations of science in an honest and transparent manner. Having more scientists in governments, parliaments and the civil service would help. Ensuring diversity and inclusion in the scientific community could reduce the elite image of science and change the power dynamics in the pathways of knowledge generation. Medical journals also have a role to play in facilitating scientific conversations, providing transparency and a means of reviewing evidence and standing up for scientists. Trust is not the same as deference. Confidence is earned. And that goes through a relationship, sometimes fragile and often tense, but built on openness, the admission of uncertainty and mutual respect.

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