A UB communications researcher has identified five factors related to public perception of science.
These factors are part of a tool that was tested to determine the state of the science in the US using a national sample of 1,054 American adults, conducted in collaboration with the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
The findings, published in the journal PNAS, suggest that differences divide conservatives and liberals when it comes to both supporting federal research funding (finding solutions to existing problems) and funding basic research (how processes or concepts work ), are nuanced and go beyond a simple trust divide.
“Trust is a key factor when it comes to supporting science, but measuring trust alone doesn’t capture the whole picture,” said Yotam Ofir, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and lead author of the study. “In the US, science is largely funded by the government. Many recent scientific breakthroughs, such as the development of the Internet, DNA analysis, and nanotechnology, have been made possible by government investment in research.
“Knowing what might encourage people to support this funding is critical.”
The new tool, developed by Ophir’s research team, expands on limited definitions of trust to build a more comprehensive measure that gives a sense of how Americans — and various subpopulations — feel about science. In Ophir’s model, trust is part of the instrument’s measure of “credibility,” which also includes the ideas of competence, integrity, and openness.
They are measured based on additional perceptions, specifically that scientists are not only trustworthy but also prudent (a measure that requires morality and accountability) and impartial (in ways that prevent their personal beliefs from interfering with or influencing their professional work) and that science itself is self-correcting (meaning that errors are identified and addressed) and useful (that science produces useful results).
Ophir says that conservatives were less likely to be supportive when they perceived that scientists had failed to overcome their biases. The interaction between political ideologies and prudence and favorable factors was significant only in predicting support for basic research.
“There were no differences between conservatives and liberals when perceptions of benefit were low, but when those perceptions were high, liberals showed more support for funding than conservatives.”
Among those who believe scientists lack prudence, liberals are more likely to support basic research funding than conservatives, but the difference disappears when perceptions of prudence are high.
“The model we present in this paper is an important measurement tool that we hope will become a standard for scientific and government organizations that want to understand how public perceptions of science and scientists change over time,” Ophir says.
The tool can track the gaps between how science is presented – everything from climate change to vaccine efficacy – and how it is perceived by the public.
“If we learn why particular people resist science, then we can become better at crafting effective messages that explain how science works, that clear up misunderstandings about science, while also identifying and addressing vulnerabilities that could lead to misinformation.” perceptions,” Ophir says.
“We hope that the results of this study will be useful to people who are interested in science and want to improve public acceptance of science.”
Ofir and his co-authors Dror Walter, assistant professor of communication at Georgia State University; Patrick Jamieson, Director, Annenberg Health & Risk Communication Institute; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director, Annenberg Public Policy Center—plan to continue developing this line of research by testing the applicability of the model in other important scientific contexts.