Every three years, the Rathenau Instituut surveys the current state of public trust in science in the Netherlands. Some of the survey questions are the same each time, so that we can make comparisons over time. Some of the questions are also new ones, however, allowing us to choose a different focus that reflects current events. In the survey conducted in spring 2021, we focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and examined its impact on public trust in science. The pandemic has given people a glimpse behind the scenes of science. They saw that scientists do not always agree and, for example, that they debated the effectiveness of face masks and the role of aerosols. But they also saw how researchers quickly developed vaccines against the coronavirus and that Covid-19 treatments improved as the weeks and months passed.
Based on our survey, we have reached the following main conclusions.
1. Public trust in science in the Netherlands has increased.
On average, public trust in science in the Netherlands rose from 7.07 in 2018 to 7.42 in 2021. The increase was not limited to science but also extended to other institutions covered in our survey. The rise in public trust is likely to be related to the pandemic. Forty per cent of the Dutch population believe that the pandemic has influenced their trust in science. Almost a quarter (24%) say they trust science more now, mainly because of the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines. Sixteen per cent say that they trust science less now, however; they too cite the rapid development of vaccines as a reason, saying that they worry about their reliability. They also struggle with contradictory information or lack of clarity. More than half of the respondents (56%) say that their level of trust has remained the same, the main reasons being that they already trusted science and that scientists are ‘just doing their job’.
2. Voting behaviour is related to trust in science and other institutions in general.
We see significantly more trust or less trust in science among people who vote for certain political parties. GroenLinks voters, for example, give their trust in science an average score of 8.4 and trust science significantly more than non-GroenLinks voters. People who vote for the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) rate their trust in science at an average of 6.5, and trust it significantly less than voters of other parties. The significance of these scores is not limited to trust in science, however. A low score on trust in science is associated with trust in institutions in general. Our survey shows that GroenLinks voters also have more faith in the judiciary and the Dutch Government. Respondents who vote for the PVV, on the other hand, place less trust in them.
These results correspond to earlier research by Statistics Netherlands showing that voting behaviour is related to trust (in institutions) in general. People who have little trust in institutions are more likely to vote for the PVV, while voters who have a high level of trust are more likely to vote for GroenLinks.
3. People trust the coronavirus information provided by physicians, scientists and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).
People place the most trust in coronavirus information that comes from physicians working in hospitals, with 89% of the respondents stating that they had a fair amount or a lot of trust in them. Next in line at 82% are scientists working at universities. These results are consistent with surveys conducted in other countries: people generally trust coronavirus information most when it comes from physicians, closely followed by scientists. Seventy per cent of the Dutch also trust the Covid-19 information issued by the RIVM. The results show that the majority of the respondents (65%) consider the RIVM to be part of the science sector, a factor that may contribute to trust.
4. The Dutch want to receive all available information on Covid-19, but they find contradictory information confusing.
Most people think that the media should share all available information about Covid-19, even if it is contradictory. At the same time, most people find it confusing when scientists disagree about the coronavirus. The majority of low- and medium-educated people agree that the media should share all available information about Covid-19, even if it is contradictory, but they also think that scientists should first agree with one another before saying anything about Covid-19 in the media. On the one hand, then, we see a strong need for transparency, while on the other, we see people having trouble interpreting information, especially when it is contradictory. It is important for scientists to communicate clearly, including about uncertainties and the limitations of research. It is also important for journalists, especially science journalists, to seek clarification about and to explain contradictory information.
5. The public trusts medical research the most.
Of the various types of research, the Dutch trust medical research, such as research into cancer treatment, the most. Next are various types of research into the natural sciences and technology, such as how to build energy-efficient houses. People have the least amount of trust in the various types of social research, such as research into improving Dutch language education programmes. This heightened level of trust in medical research also applies to various types of coronavirus research. People have a lot of trust in research on Covid-19 vaccines and treatment. They have much less faith in research into the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. One possible factor here is that people tend to trust research more when they see it has demonstrable results, for example vaccinations leading to a declining infection rate. Another notable point is that they trust research into the effectiveness of face masks least, possibly owing to contradictory reporting on their effectiveness. It may also be related to people’s feeling that the Covid-19 restrictions conflict with their values or personal attitudes. If that is so, they will be more inclined not to trust the underlying research, as we saw in the focus group study we published earlier this year.
6. The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines and the major interests involved in that research are reasons to both trust and distrust vaccine research.
Three quarters of the Dutch have ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust in Covid-19 vaccine research. When presented with a list of possible reasons for trusting or not trusting this research, most of the respondents who do trust it say that they trust the researchers involved and the European Medicines Agency. Most of the respondents who have ‘not a lot of trust’ or ‘no trust at all’ in Covid-19 vaccine research say that the vaccines were developed too quickly. They are concerned about long-term side effects and say that the information they are receiving is contradictory or inadequate.
Looking at the reasons that respondents give for trusting or not trusting Covid-19 vaccine research, we see that the two groups observe the same phenomenon or factor but interpret it differently. For example, many respondents believe there are major interests at stake in vaccine research. People who trust this research see this as a positive factor. They believe that the whole world is watching, that scientists are collaborating and pharmaceutical companies have a financial or other interest in ensuring that the research is conducted properly. Many of those who do not trust the vaccine research take a negative view of these same interests and claim that they are largely about money and not about health. Many respondents also note the speed at which the Covid-19 vaccines have been developed. People who place great faith in vaccine research see that these vaccines are working, or hope that they will work, and regard them as a quick way out of the crisis. Those who have little or no faith in vaccine research think that the vaccines have been developed too quickly and are afraid of the long-term side effects.