Restoring Trust in Science

Preserving and enhancing faith in our nation’s scientific enterprise is central to the mission of every college and university. Our peers across higher education have been concerned about a multi-year trend for the public to devalue scientific research and expertise, and especially the growing partisan gap in the perception that science and scientists are trustworthy. The good news is that the pandemic has started to reverse this trend, with both Americans and citizens around the globe reporting renewed trust in science and medicine.


However, these gains are fragile. There continues to be a sharp partisan divide, as evidenced by this 2020 report from Pew Research: “Trust in Medical Scientists Has Grown in U.S., but Mainly Among Democrats.” In a global pandemic, the lack of scientific literacy, prevalence of misinformation and partisan battles over what scientific advice should guide policy have life-and-death consequences. And corresponding gains can save lives. For example, I was struck by this Pew Research headline about what is possible when the scientific and medical community works consistently to promote the power of vaccines: “Intent to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Rises to 60% as Confidence in Research and Development Process Increases.”

In this context, I was excited to see some recent materials developed by the Association of American Universities. The AAU and its member institutions have banded together to better communicate the role of research universities in developing COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and lifesaving technologies. The campaign includes a website and a 30-second video spot. These materials are not only effective storytelling about the impact of universities, scientists and research on a critical public issue, but they also help to build trust in these institutions and in the scientific process among federal and state policymakers and the broader public.

The theme of “partnerships” is a recurring section in our trends newsletter, The Scan. I hope we will see more developments like this as universities work to reestablish public trust and awareness of the importance of their research mission.

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