The 20th century may have been the century when science seeped into everyday life. I’ve just read a fascinating article by Andrew Jewett from late 2020 on how the scientific process and dispassionate ideals of research fueled everything from progressive reform and the New Deal era to management consulting and the Space Race. But Jewett also points out that the 20th century gave birth to politicized anti-science backlashes and distrust.
Today, the so-called “trust gap” in science has become an existential crisis for our country and the world. The world now faces a number of imminent crises and threats, including the increased likelihood of pandemic disease, extreme weather including heat domes, drought and fires, flooding, and devastating storms including hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as growing concerns to our public and social health. Better public policies could have been enacted but the issues often lacked the right public understanding, and a common belief in academics and science to support the right leadership and policies.
The change in public sentiments about the power and effectiveness of science and scientific institutions represents a significant shift. Fewer Americans are confident in the direction of our leading scientific institutions than they were 50 years ago, according to the landmark General Social Survey. And twice as many don’t trust it at all.
Now, when we need a strong public consensus most, trust in science is at its most fractured point in the last century. I think the problem is that there is no counter-narrative to the politicization of scientific facts and policies that has been building steam for more than 100 years. The us-vs-them argument will never be settled to anyone’s satisfaction.
But what if people saw American science as inclusive, nonpartisan and committed to the health of all people? What if the average American could see science the way that my scientist friends see it: collaborative, communitarian, and engaged? Curious, hardworking, innovative?
We’ve all seen how knowledge can fall flat or backfire when people don’t see themselves in the enterprise. The politicization of issues that require critical attention must stop. Our leaders must act using reliable, reproducible, and relevant data, but first we must build a groundswell of support at the public level. Because science cannot help the public if the public is not committed to science.
Science is never perfect – but at its best it represents our society’s search for truth. The time is now to rebrand science and build back the fascination and faith in this venerable pursuit.
At ScientificBrands, we propose a vast, multiyear national campaign to reignite public interest in our leading science and technology. Let’s tell the stories. Let’s let the facts drive the national discussion and forge a new narrative, as opposed to reading press accounts of biased or uninformed assumptions. The coalition for such an ambitious endeavor would require leadership and support among a range of parties, from corporations and advocacy nonprofit organizations, to research institutions and government agencies.
We can and must do this. Foundering in an eddy of conflicting opinion will leave us immobilized and ineffective as we confront the greatest challenges and threats to humanity ever faced.