Editor Sounds Alarm Over Falling Public Trust In Science

  • Date: 18/08/16
  • David Matthews, Times Higher Education

Jeremy Berg, new editor-in-chief of Science Mag, warns scientists are straying into policy commentator roles.

Illustration by David Parkins — Nature, September 2015

Jeremy Berg is taking on one of the most influential jobs in science just as the scientific endeavour is facing a challenge of historic proportions.

As the new editor-in-chief of Science, a highly selective journal that still has the controversial power to make scientific careers, the biochemist and former University of Pittsburgh senior manager is worried about an apparent rejection of science by some parts of the public – and thinks that academics should look closely at how their own behaviour may have contributed.

“One of the things that drew me to this position…is there’s a crisis in public trust in science,” he tells Times Higher Education after starting in the Science post on 1 July. “I don’t pretend to have answers to that question but it is something that I care deeply about.”

Berg, who started his career in chemistry but then moved on to span a host of other disciplines including biochemistry and personalised medicine, acknowledges that society’s confidence in science does “wax and wane” over time but thinks that, this time, things are different.

In the US, “scientists have been labelled as another special interest group”, he says.

Part of this is down to the polarisation of American politics and the rise of an anti-intellectual spirit, Berg thinks. His fears echo Atul Gawande, an American health writer, who earlier this year told graduating students at the California Institute of Technology that “we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities”.

In his address, Gawande cited a study that showed a significant decline in trust in science among American conservatives. In 1974, conservatives had the most trust in science, but by 2010, they had the least, and substantially less than liberals in particular.

Donald Trump, who has erroneously linked vaccines to autism, blamed China for creating the concept of global warming to undermine US manufacturing and claimed that environmentally friendly light bulbs can cause cancer, can be seen as one manifestation of this long-term collapse in conservative trust in science in the US.

But researchers are not entirely blameless for this rising hostility, thinks Berg. “Scientists are guilty of behaving in some ways of making this stick more than it needs to,” he says.

Too often they have gone beyond explaining the scientific situation and ventured into policy prescriptions, notably in the case of climate change, he thinks. “The policy issues should be informed by science, but they are separate questions,” he says. “Scientists to some degree, intentionally or otherwise, have been mashing the two together,” he adds, and urges scientists to be more “transparent” about “where the firmness of your conclusions end”.

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