Are scientists regarded as competent, reliable and honest?
Trust is a word with many different meanings and aspects. We chose to analyse trust in science by asking our Dutch respondents to consider three characteristics of scientists: competence, reliability and integrity. The questionnaire contained statements addressing these three aspects. The respondents’ responses show that the Dutch generally have a positive view of scientists. Almost 4 out of 5 (77%-79%) Dutch persons think that scientists work carefully, are experts in their field, and can be trusted even though they do not always agree with each other. Only 10%-15% think that scientists make a lot of mistakes, have less expertise than most people think, and cannot be trusted because they often disagree with each other. The majority of the Dutch population (66%) believe that scientists are objective and independent in their work. Almost a quarter (23%) of the Dutch think that scientists modify their research to get the answers they want.
The latter finding – that almost one out of four Dutch persons (23%) think that scientists modify their research to get the answers they want – is striking. We therefore attempted to characterise this group. Of note is that, on average, this group gives all institutions a significantly lower mark for trust than the overall sample. They not only have less trust in science but in all institutions, evidently. Also notable are this group’s responses to an open question about its associations with science. As expected, the percentage of negative associations is higher than among the overall group. Strikingly, almost all of the negative associations concerning falsification, fabrication or plagiarism can be traced to the members of this group of respondents.
Trust in cooperation between science and government/business?
What happens to the level of trust when scientists cooperate with government or business? Earlier studies have shown that, as institutions, government and business enjoy less trust than science. We therefore examined public trust in such cooperation by presenting statements about the three aspects of trust described earlier (competence, reliability and integrity).
If we compare the answers to the statements about ‘scientists who undertake contract research’ with the answers to statements about ‘scientists in general’, we see one important difference. Doubts about the integrity of scientists increase as soon as they work for government or business; a proportion of the Dutch believe that scientists will modify their research to get the results that government (34%) or the business (41%) wants.
The Dutch also do not have a positive view of government and business within the context of contract research:
- 57% think that government does not really know how to make use of research results in its policy
- a large majority think that government and businesses will make use of research results only if those results support their own ideas
- and about 60% believe that government and business will try to obstruct unwanted results.
On the other hand, the Dutch also believe that it is acceptable for scientists to let their choice of research topic be guided by the interests of business and government. They also think that government more often should take the outcomes of research into account in its decisions.
The results are relevant for scientists, government and business. Scientists who work for government and business should be aware that a sizeable percentage of the Dutch population (34%-41%) believe that they modify their research to get the results that their client wants. Government should be aware that a large percentage of Dutch citizens believe that research paid for by government is modified in its favour. That is even more the case for research paid for by businesses.
Trust among differing groups: age, gender and education
As in previous years, we see that trust in science is related to educational level. High-educated individuals trust science more than low-educated ones.
In analysing the results of the survey, we noted a difference in trust between men and women of differing ages. There is not much difference in the under-50 age categories. In the group of respondents older than 50, women’s average scores for trust in science are lower than men’s. We see a similar trend in the data generated by the 2012 and 2015 Rathenau surveys on trust in science. This difference remains significant even after correcting for the existing difference in educational level between men and women of that age, or for the difference in scientific knowledge.
If we consider how high- and low-educated persons assess the different aspects of trust in science (competence, reliability and integrity), a significant difference emerges between their answers to the statements about reliability and integrity. High-educated respondents are more likely than the low-educated ones to agree with the positive statements. There is no significant difference between high- and low-educated people in their answers to the statements about competence.
It is notable that the percentage of high-educated respondents who ‘agree completely with’ or ‘lean towards’ the statement ‘Scientists modify their research to get the answers they want’ is 19%, but this percentage increases significantly when the statement is reworded to refer to scientists
- working for government (31%)
- and working for a business (44%).
Looking at how men and women over the age of 50 assess the various aspects of trust (competence, reliability and integrity), we see that their scores are similar for most of the statements. The only exception concerns integrity: women older than 50 are more likely to ‘agree completely with’ or ‘lean towards’ the statement that scientists modify their research.