Two sides of the same coin: Public trust in science and scientists‘ trust in the public

Cooperation project of the University of Mannheim and the University of Düsseldorf, funded by the DFG

In an exceptional situation such as the Covid 19 pandemic, it has become clear that Western societies are in transition from a taken-for-granted acceptance of science towards a perception of science as a risk. As political decisions, based on scientific research and advice, are met with criticism and sometimes resistance, science is drawn into these conflicts. When the focus of public debates thus shifts from knowledge itself to the trustworthiness of the knowledge producer, the “public engagement” of science plays an important role. If scientists lose confidence in the rationality of public communication due to negative experiences and renounce their engagement, an important pillar for trust in science would be lost.

Trust in science is like a coin with two sides: One side is the perspective of the population which sees the risk of relying on scientific results in a time of high uncertainty and therefore looks for indicators of its trust. The other side is the scientists' perspective: They might question the rationality of public discussion processes, seeing them as risky for their reputation and even for their safety. Therefore, the cooperation project, which consists of two independent sub-projects, aims to shed light on both perspectives at the same time.

Public trust in science

The Mannheim sub-project headed by Prof. Dr. Matthias Kohring models the architecture of public trust in science, consisting of risk perceptions, trust expectations, reasons for trust and consequences of trust – or distrust. The perception of scientists as communicators is of particular interest. The programme combines an extensive exploratory phase with the development of a standardised survey instrument. Furthermore, the influences of the media on the expression of trust in science will be investigated. In addition to Matthias Kohring, Christine Petersen and Fabian Zimmermann belong to the project in Mannheim.

Scientists' trust in the public

The Düsseldorf sub-project headed by Prof. Dr. Frank Marcinkowski analyses how scientists perceived the public role of science during the first phase of the Covid 19 pandemic. The project investigates whether this perception might have changed scientists’ attitudes towards dialogue with the public, the media and stakeholders, and what communication behaviour follows from this. The programme includes a standardised survey of scientists as well as guided interviews with particularly “visible” and mostly “invisible” scientists. In addition to Frank Marcinkowski, the Düsseldorf project includes Hella Elise de Haas and Sarah Kohler.

The synthesis of both sub-projects enables a thorough evaluation of the mutual trust relationship between science and the public. From this comprehensive analysis, we derive recommendations for science communication and especially for the communication behaviour of scientists in order to stabilise the trust relationship between science and the public beyond the Covid 19 pandemic.