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fact sheet
04 January 2018

Public trust in science

The factsheet contains a brief statistical overview of the current state of affairs concerning the trust of the Dutch citizen in science.

Our trust in science is based on our hope and expectation that science will make our lives healthier, longer, more interesting and therefore more pleasant. Trust in science is an important parameter for assessing the impact of science. This factsheet gives a concise, statistics-based overview of trust in science among the Dutch public. Science is compared with other social institutions and with other countries. We also consider to what extent the public should be involved in drawing up the science agenda.​

Public trust in science in the Netherlands

Trust in science was measured in two surveys (2012 and 2015) conducted among a representative sample of the Dutch public. Respondents were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 (absolutely no trust) to 10 (complete trust) how much trust they have in a number of institutions. The figure below shows the proportion of respondents giving the institution in question a score of 7 or above. Clearly, of all the eight institutions in the survey, science enjoys the greatest degree of public trust. There was a slight fall in 2015, albeit smaller than for the other institutions.

Trust in science appears to be widespread. Men and women have similar levels of trust, and there is also little difference between younger and older generations. There is a small difference in trust between people with different political views. People who vote for the right-wing PVV and the Protestant political party SGP have the least trust in science (58% and 59% on the same scale); Socialist Party voters also have slightly less trust.

Trust in science also varies with the level of education. People who have only completed primary education or only attended secondary school for a few years clearly have less trust than those with a vocational qualification (MBO), who have average trust, and those with a higher education degree, who have more trust in science.

International comparison

An international comparative survey has also been performed among the public in all EU member states. Known as the “Special Eurobarometer 419” (2014), it surveyed a representative random sample in every member state. Though the survey did not ask about trust in science as such, it did ask about factors on which such trust is based, such as whether science is likely to have a positive impact on a number of societal challenges; what people hope and expect of science, therefore.

The results for the sample of the Dutch population are shown in the figure below. They have been ranked according to the level of expectation: the challenges where expectations are high are at the top, and those where expectations are lowest are at the bottom.

Vertrouwen bij onderzoek in opdracht van overheid en bedrijven

Clearly, people expect to see the greatest impact on challenges that are primarily the focus of the natural, technical and health sciences. People have lower expectations when it comes to the impact of science on social issues, with the exception of ‘education and skills’. A large proportion of the public expect science to have a positive impact on this, too.

If we sum all the scores and calculate what percentage of the public expect science to have a positive impact, we obtain a score of 62% for the Netherlands. There are countries that score higher (e.g. Sweden, 67%), but most countries have lower scores, including the United Kingdom (51%) and Germany (53%). The EU average is 50%. Possible explanations for these differences have not yet been studied.

Trust and involvement in science

The Netherlands has a long tradition of bringing the public and science together, with a number of science museums and several events like ‘Art and Science Night’ and ‘Twente Science Night’. The National Science Agenda was introduced in 2015.

In the 2015 survey the Dutch public were asked whether they think that the public should be involved in deciding what topics should be researched. 42% of respondents believe they should; 27% think they should but that they have no role to play themselves, while another 15% would like to be involved themselves. The more highly educated are more likely to wish to be involved (22%) than those with intermediate and elementary levels of education.

International comparisons in this regard are hardly feasible. Similar questions have been asked in Sweden and the United Kingdom. In both these countries, public interest is significantly greater than in the Netherlands. The proportion wishing to be involved in science decision-making is 31% in the UK, and 53% in Sweden. While 58% of Dutch people felt no desire to be involved, this figure was 24% in the UK and only 13% in Sweden.