When the history of our current moment is written, science will be central to the story. In the crucible of 2020, did science rebuild the societal trust needed to defeat the coronavirus? Or did a break in trust lead to a lingering pandemic that foreshadowed future failures to solve the coming crises of climate change, food and water insecurity, and economic stagnation? Historians will consider what led to this pivotal moment in the relationship of science and society and how it was resolved. Scientists and society must work together to ensure that this time of uncertainty and upheaval leads to a new era of solutions that enrich the lives and well-being of us all.
We live in wondrous times: The pace of discovery and innovation has never been faster. We have seen for the first time the methane-covered mountains of Pluto, discovered gravitational ripples caused by colliding black holes, detailed extensive changes to our climate and environment, advanced quantum computing to the brink of broader utility, and harnessed gene editing to potentially cure sickle cell anemia and other diseases.
Despite failures in our public health response to the pandemic, the biomedical research enterprise has never worked more quickly than during its quest to understand and address COVID-19. While basic researchers work around-the-clock to answer fundamental questions about the coronavirus’ structure, transmission, and impacts, clinicians and physician scientists are testing therapeutics and vaccines. The record-shattering number of submissions to the journal Science and other peer-reviewed publications for COVID-related research—from structural biology to epidemiology—speaks volumes about the speed and intensity with which researchers are responding to this crisis.
We also live in uncertain times: Multiple intersecting challenges have the potential to become global crises. The COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last time that science will be essential to society’s triumph over existential threats. Addressing future public health concerns, such as climate change, food and water insecurity, and other challenges—some of which are yet to emerge—will require the long-term integration of science into policymaking in ways that have only been temporary in the past. The cadence of emerging crises and the pace of planet-changing discoveries necessitate permanent elevation of scientific advisers to the front ranks of policymaking as they have only sometimes been during national crises like world wars, and moments of global competition like the space race. At the same time, we need to more fully engage diverse communities with an intentional emphasis on those that have been ignored, marginalized, or harmed by scientific advancement.
One element is absolutely critical to the success of our mission to improve the human condition: trust. It’s a foundational element of any relationship, but for the mutual benefit of the scientific enterprise and the people who support it, trust is essential. Simply put, a scientific endeavor that is not trusted by the public cannot adequately contribute to society and will be diminished as a result.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with just such an example. Late last year two of the vaccine candidates in clinical trials demonstrated safety and effectiveness in preventing infection of the virus that causes COVID-19. Although this was a remarkable accomplishment on its own, manufacturing and delivering these vaccines to the world’s population will be an enormous challenge. To further complicate this situation, a public that is generally trusting of scientists and health professionals is receiving vastly different information, guidance, and recommendations based on its news consumption, political leaders, and geography. A September 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that Americans were evenly divided as to whether they would get a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 if one were available now. The science of vaccine development cannot be successful if it is not trusted enough that people will get vaccinated. Science will have accomplished nothing by producing a vaccine that sits unused in a warehouse. We cannot become resigned or complacent as we work to maintain trust in science during this critical moment.
Importantly, it is not enough to say the public should trust scientists because we know better or because we know more. Trust must be earned. Unfortunately, science and scientists have not consistently earned and nurtured this trust. In some respects, this is the result of the advancement of the scientific enterprise. Science in the 21st century is much more removed from daily life because of the necessity of speaking with precision by using technical terms and jargon. Although it may serve a purpose in the practice and communication of important developments within a field, jargon removes science almost completely from the realm of the lay public. It has become a special skill set to break out of the audience of scientists and into the audience of the interested, the allies of scientists, and the public. The pace of discovery and knowledge, and the size and scope of the scientific enterprise, makes this especially difficult. It is incumbent on scientists to value and develop these skills.
The practice of science is messy. Hypotheses are put forward and tested. Understanding evolves and comes in fits and starts. The trial and error in research methodology and the repetitive testing in laboratories are often hidden behind the end products of scientific research—a new treatment, a new piece of technology, a new or revised piece of public health guidance—without the public seeing the puts and takes that are required along the way. When that process is then seen in real time, as we’re all experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has little context for updates in public health guidance, such as the change to recommending wearing face masks to limit and prevent infection.
More disturbingly, science has sometimes lost the trust of the public through researchers’ own painful missteps and blatant violations of that trust. Science, engineering, and medicine are not immune to the discrimination, subjugation, and silencing of marginalized people and voices. We have too often been unwitting perpetuators of the status quo, and the reasons are deeply ingrained in the systems that govern our society. It’s important to hold a mirror to the scientific community and recognize where we have made mistakes. We must look at the past and ask: What got us to where we are today? As just one example, the 40-year Tuskegee study of Black men with untreated syphilis that ended in 1972 was unethical and should never have happened. Unsurprisingly, Black Americans are more distrustful of medical experts than other demographic groups, an example of how trust can be lost. We must recognize and acknowledge the areas where science has fallen short so that we can listen, understand, and move forward.
Fortunately, we start from a solid foundation. Seventy-three percent of adults in the United States—like majorities around the world—agree that science and technology make our lives better, and they trust scientists and researchers to make important discoveries that help solve problems. In building on this foundation, scientists must remember that we have a responsibility not just to our research and our own careers but also to the public that we serve. The fruits of our labor are meant to be shared broadly with our communities, not left in labs. The only way to build trust is to show members of the public that we are of them and for them, not separate from them.
We must make sure that when historians look back at our time, they see how trust between science and society was actively strengthened and led to lasting benefits for the public good.
The differences in public opinion that we see on science-related issues often align with educational and ideological differences and exist primarily in applied science—that is, people’s consideration of specific applications of science and technology that affect them directly—such as vaccines, genetically modified food, renewable energy, and artificial intelligence. Asking the public about their acceptance of applications provides a glimpse into what kind of world people want, what technologies they are comfortable with, and how solving existing problems with new technology might potentially create new questions and challenges.
At the same time, increased political polarization and an outspoken faction of Americans who distrust experts, including scientists who develop evidence-based findings that may challenge closely held opinions, have also widened the gap between Americans’ trust in science and scientists.
How do we consider the best path forward into an increasingly technology-oriented world—one that both faces these challenges head-on and works to address pressing societal issues? The time to build trust is before you need it. We need to build relationships in and across communities to become better informed and much more inclusive in how we define problems and find solutions. We must proactively and vigorously make connections and build trust between scientists and communities. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we create opportunities for scientists to listen to and share information with public audiences through conversations with diverse communities—from policymakers to reporters, from religious leaders to lawyers and judges. We place scientists as policy fellows within congressional and federal agency offices where they can learn from and directly influence policymakers. We connect journalists with vetted scientific experts to help reporters understand the science behind key issues. We help integrate science into the curricula of theologically diverse seminaries, showing that faith and science can be compatible. Perhaps most importantly, we help scientists build relationships in their communities before they are needed during a crisis.
Science is not just for the few. It is for everyone and can be used by anyone. We must find new and better ways to connect the practice and use of science to inform and shape our communities, our country, and our world. We must make sure that when historians look back at our time, they see how trust between science and society was actively strengthened and led to lasting benefits for the public good.
Sudip Parikh is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.