People want to hear from experts

The Science Editor of The Conversation shares how universities have helped people understand what "the science" really means during lockdown.

As the world ground to a standstill in March, The Conversation was suddenly busier than ever.

The Conversation’s content is written by academic experts, in collaboration with our team of journalists. Our mission is to deliver research and expertise to a general audience through accessible articles. As we are funded by universities and research bodies, our content is free to read and republish under a creative commons licence. We have a long list of republishers, ranging from CNN and The Guardian to The Daily Mail and Scientific American.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, traffic to our website doubled, following a pattern also seen across traditional news media in which the coronavirus crisis significantly increased consumption.

The reason is obvious: isolated at home and facing huge uncertainty, people craved expert reassurance. A UK Open Knowledge Foundation opinion poll demonstrated this, with 64 per cent of respondents saying they were now more likely to listen to experts.

Even before the pandemic, public interest in research and expertise was high — partly in response to the growing pandemic of disinformation. But while interest is often driven by the news agenda, some themes always generate reads, such as neuroscience, language and mental health — our most read story ever was about how people with depression use language differently. Geology, space, physics, evolution, climate and health can also really cut through.

Many people are genuinely curious about the latest research into complex topics, such as paleomagnetism and quantum mechanics. It’s jargon, rather than complexity, that puts them off. When it comes to coronavirus, we’ve seen huge interest in practical advice about hand sanitisers and masks, but also in new research and practices overseas.

Public trust in science

Universities have a duty to engage with new audiences in this way. This may be obvious to university leaders and administrators, but it isn’t always to academics. When one junior researcher questioned why they should write for us, their supervisor shot back: “Because it’s your ethical duty to do so, given that the taxpayers’ money funds your research.”

If people only ever see the odd entertaining research story about whether cows have regional accents or what effects cocaine has on honeybee dance behaviour (both real papers), it’s understandable they would ask exactly what their money is going to fund. The coronavirus pandemic has been an opportunity for universities to make clear that the hardworking researchers in their biosafety labs are racing to save lives.

It isn’t only Covid-19 research that matters. Some areas of research simply aren’t very visible, meaning prospective students don’t seek them out. By boosting their research profile through engaging directly with the public, departments can attract more students, bringing in cash and ultimately raising research quality.

But maintaining public trust is critical. The government has created a (false) narrative that it’s simply and dutifully “following the science” and encouraging the public to do the same. But the coronavirus is novel, and there’s much we don’t know about it. Epidemiological models differ radically from each other and are constantly updated. And as research standards have been relaxed to encourage faster publication, papers in prestigious journals have been retracted.

This could threaten public trust in science – especially if the science the government is “following” turns out to be “wrong”. We’ve been there before. During the 1990s BSE crisis, a government minister fed his four-year-old daughter beef to convince the public that it was safe. But scientists later discovered a link between eating infected beef and the brain disease vCJD. Arguably, this led people to distrust later government advice on the safety of the MMR vaccine.

If trust is eroded in relation to coronavirus, that will have serious consequences for how scientific evidence is treated in other policy areas, such as climate change — as three experts recently argued in The Conversation. Science is often seen as foolproof, but sometimes it isn’t — particularly when it comes to completely new topics such as Covid-19. For climate change, there definitely is a strong scientific consensus built up over decades by research across many disciplines. We need to be clear about the difference. On the plus side, if we develop a vaccine against the virus, public research could help change the minds of those who distrust vaccinations.

Show the debate

To mitigate these risks, The Conversation tries to give a platform to many different voices, not only epidemiologists, but also experts from other fields, such as virologists, economists and psychologists. We also aim to be open and clear about scientific disagreements and the reliability of studies.

One tricky area – at least initially – was finding academics willing and able to write about the modelling of Covid-19 in the UK after two competing versions seemed to divide the community. It was an important example of where the public may have lost trust from a lack of understanding of how modelling works and an unwillingness to explain it.

We decided early on that it would be impossible to cover the latest Covid-19 research if we completely avoided research that hadn’t yet been peer reviewed — but agreed this should be on a case-by-case basis and be clearly communicated.

People trust science, and it is the duty of communicators, researchers and university leaders to tell the full story. It’s not only the results that matter — we should also be talking about the pros and cons of the peer review system and the sometimes slow and boring process of doing research.

If we get it right, it would further boost the relationship between the public and universities. During the pandemic, academic experts including epidemiologists and behavioural scientists have forged strong links with the government.

There will continue to be a need for experts to engage with policymakers as the government battles with economic and psychological recovery, inequality and the threat of future pandemics.

Rebuilding society is going to need big ideas in areas ranging from engineering, social sciences and epidemiology to mental health and the arts. Universities should start showcasing how they can help now.

Leave a Reply