At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told the crowd, “They keep saying Science, Science, Science. What I say is Freedom, Freedom, Freedom,” leading to resounding applause from the audience. Unfortunately, this is where we are when it comes to the state of trust in science.
Earlier this week I read a profound Holman Jenkins editorial in The Wall Street Journal titled, “The Public Taste for Lies Revisited.” He cited an in-house publication of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center, where a virologist noted the “strange spectacle of scientists caring less about finding the truth than about rooting for one or the other possibility to be true on the origins of Covid.” I also recently read a study in Health Affairs Newsletter that showed low trust in the Centers for Disease Control on the basis that there is political influence on its policies (74 percent) and there are too many conflicting recommendations (73 percent).
The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly undermined trust in science and specifically in the healthcare system. One of the stunning findings in this January’s Edelman Trust Barometer was that my coworkers and scientists are equally trusted to do what is right (75 percent), nearly twice as much as government leaders (41 percent), so trust is equally dispersed among experts and those close to us. We are now in the field with our second Edelman Trust Barometer special report on health; we are investigating whether health is a major factor causing polarization in society because of the deeply different outcomes of Covid and lack of equal access to quality care. Our report last April showed that one had to trust the healthcare system to achieve high vaccination rates, so the challenge is no longer simply vaccine discovery but the business of vaccination.
Science is at an inflection point, with an accelerating rate of innovation colliding with a bruised and fearful populace. The mRNA process is a revolution in biological science, from reading a gene to writing a gene on a computer. The largest ever clinical trials for a vaccine were conducted in record time, yet the gulf between science and society led to vaccine hesitancy. The same is true in food science; one can change gene expression in a way that speeds crop growth and resilience but there continues to be resistance to genetically modified seeds. The energy transition is proceeding but with little public knowledge of the innovation; geo-engineering seems that it can control temperature by putting aerosols into the atmosphere, as terrifying as it is promising. Artificial intelligence offers the promise of new types of medical information or tamper proof financial transactions but also can be subject to disinformation.
Paul Alivisatos, president of the University of Chicago, believes that there is an urgent need for a new social compact between science and society. Scientists need to be inclusive and transparent about the work product. There must be real dialogue with non-scientists, an open discourse which enables the airing of risks. The innovations need to deliver for all levels of society, not just the elite, affordably priced and available broadly.
This is the only way to reverse what Jenkins calls the “collapse of respect for evidence that is making society stupid.” We need to restore belief in facts to have science meet the massive challenges of disease, population growth and climate change. There is a vital role here for the PR industry in a trusted transformation, for example to be at the main table to demand that there be an insurance policy if the energy transition takes longer than expected or that clinical trials reflect the actual population make-up. Our task is far beyond communications; it is restoration of trust in science through inclusivity and freedom of expression.
Richard Edelman is CEO.