Scientists seeking pathways to trust

Chief Scientist Cathy Foley defends scientific method in “an era of declining trust in institutions, a lesser role for traditional gatekeepers of content and increasing misinformation.”

In  a new paper she argues community awareness of how science works can counter, “unfounded questions about trust in a particular research outcome.”

Dr Foley points to research on the  pandemic, climate change and water quality on the Great Barrier Reef, “where debates about the quality of a particular paper or dataset, valid or not, are side-tracked to an attack on the integrity of a research team, or science more generally.”

And she sets out the ideals and institutions of science which allow the quality of research to be questioned without interrogating the integrity of the researcher, “when unfounded accusations are made about the integrity of specific research when the real issue is one of quality.”

Dr Foley states her paper “does not express a view” on establishing an office of research integrity, immediately before suggesting an alternative. “If the debate can be shifted from the isolated issues of integrity to the more pressing issues of quality, I believe the public will better understand the scientific process and trust will be built and strengthened. Trust in science is built on scientific literacy,” she writes.

However, a recent analysis indicates Australians distinguish between types of science to trust. Bruce Tranter (Uni Tasmania) reports survey results showing complex responses to questions on trust in science, driven by demography and political views but also scientific fields. While some are plain bewildering, overall, younger people are more trusting of scientists, except on weather-forecasting. Overall, he states, “public trust in scientists tends to vary according to the type of science in Australia.”

And Dr Tranter makes a case for the Chief Scientist, “when politicians choose to distance themselves from the advice of scientific experts on issues as important as a global pandemic, due to public fatigue in following expert health advice, or because of potential voter backlash over policies to ameliorate climate change, the slope becomes very slippery indeed.”



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