Rebuilding trust in science

The current pandemic has shown the importance of science; however, tackling future challenges requires a relationship based on trust between scientists and society, argues MEP Ivars Ijabs.
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By Ivars Ijabs

Ivars Ijabs (LV, RE) is co-chair the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA)

07 Jul 2021

Science is a crucial pillar in beating the COVID-19 pandemic. As the focus of this fight moves from vaccine availability to vaccine take up, we need to rebuilding society’s trust in science. This trust is essential for solving our other crises such as climate change, food and water insecurity, and economic stagnation. A trustful relationship between science and society is critical for the survival of both. This is what we have to keep in mind, when planning new EU research and innovation programmes like Horizon Europe and others. Research results are always embedded in a wider societal context of trust and acceptance, and if Europe wants to lead in research and innovation in the next decades, it has to think more of this societal dimension.

The pace of discovery and innovation has never been faster than during the current COVID crisis. Despite shortcomings in public health responses to the pandemic, the biomedical research sector has never been more effective than during its quest to understand and address COVID-19.  Researchers all across Europe are working tirelessly to answer fundamental questions about the structure and impact of the coronaviruses, while clinicians are testing therapeutics and vaccines. The crisis has boosted research and seen a plethora of submissions of peer-reviewed publications on COVID-related research — from structural biology to epidemiology, from biochemistry to sociology — illustrating the speed and intensity with which researchers are responding to this crisis.

However, we are living in uncertain times and the COVID-19 pandemic will surely not be the last time when up-to-date scientific research will be essential for overcoming existential threats. Addressing such challenges as climate change, food and water insecurity, artificial intelligence will require the long-term integration of science into policy design. The emerging crises and the pace of new discoveries necessitate the permanent elevation of scientific knowledge to the top of the policymaking agenda.

“If Europe wants to lead in research and innovation in the next decades, it has to think more of the societal dimension”

One absolutely critical element of this integration is trust. Any scientific endeavour that is not trusted by the public, seen as biased and self-serving, cannot adequately contribute to society and will be diminished as a result. This brings us back to the ideals of the Enlightenment: scientific research is not only the way to acquire new technologies but also a way to make our social life more rational and more humane.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with a significant example of the importance of trust. A public that is generally trusting of scientists and health professionals is receiving vastly different information, guidance, and recommendations based on its news consumption, political leaders, and geography. This in turn leads to higher levels of societal understanding, to higher vaccination rates and to a more successful overcoming of the crisis. Some sociological data are quite telling here. Over a quarter (27 percent) of adults in the EU are vaccine hesitant, indicating that they were either ‘very unlikely’ or ‘rather unlikely’ to take the COVID-19 vaccine in Eurofound’s large-scale online survey. However, in some countries, vaccine hesitancy is as high as 61 percent. The survey found a strong association between vaccine hesitancy and social media use, particularly when social media is the main source of information. And there is some correlation also between lower levels of public and private spending on research and development and more wide-spread vaccine scepticism.

The constant willingness of the European Parliament and the ITRE committee both to increasing the European research budget and to motivating EU Member States to invest more in R&I on their own behalf should be seen in this light. The more we invest in scientific endeavour both nationally and at the European level, the more we can expect our R&I systems to be able to cope with future crises.

The differences in public opinion that we see on science-related issues often align with educational and ideological differences and exist primarily in applied science—that is, people’s consideration of specific applications of science and technology that affect them directly—such as vaccines, genetically modified food, renewable energy, and artificial intelligence.

The science of vaccine development cannot be successful if we cannot trust that enough people will get vaccinated. Science would accomplish nothing by producing a vaccine that sits unused in a warehouse. We cannot become resigned or complacent as we work to maintain trust in science during this critical moment.