According to new research, Australians trust scientists because they don’t understand where their funding is coming from. Dr Julie Milland reports.
Dr Christine Critchley, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Swinburne University, said the public’s trust in science was dependent on a stereotypical view that science is totally publicly funded, yet this may not always be the case.
Critchley said her research suggested that trust in scientists drops dramatically if people think a drug or private company is funding the work.
She said people are also more likely to oppose controversial fields such as stem cell research or genetic testing if the scientists are working for a company or receiving money from a company.
She said that the Federal Government had encouraged public engagement with science, as outlined in the Inspiring Australia report of 2010. At the same time, there has been a massive push towards commercialisation.
Critchley thinks these two policy directions create a dilemma because the public is less likely to trust commercialised science.
She said the standing of private science might improve if the public understood that privately funded science is regulated and has similar obligations to publically funded science.
The project asked 800 Victorians questions about their attitudes to science. The results showed that 61 per cent of Victorians think that scientists are trustworthy and 81 per cent think that science has a positive impact on health and medicine.
But the results also showed that 31 per cent of Victorians agreed that scientists over-promote their findings to further their own personal causes. In addition, 47 per cent of Victorians did not agree that scientists place truth before profit.
“To me, this suggests that the high level of trust in scientists is very fragile and can be influenced very easily,” Critchley said.
* The 2011 research was prepared for the Victorian Government by Sweeney Pty Ltd. The 2007 research was prepared for the Victorian Government by Quantum Market Research.
(You can read more by Dr Milland on her blog Science Mojo.)
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