Public confidence in research – communication dos and don’ts for researchers

Public confidence in research – communication dos and don’ts for researchers

Author: Fredrik Brouneus – VA (Public & Science), Sweden

Maria Lindholm – VA (Public & Science)
Ylva Norén Bretzer – University of Gothenburg

Together with the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg, the Swedish non-profit organisation VA (Public & Science) has been following public attitudes to science since 2002 in an annual national survey. Public confidence in research is generally high in Sweden. However, results show a great – and consistent – variation between research areas. Medicine invariably comes out on top, whereas education research and the humanities are at the bottom. Why is this so? What builds confidence in science and researchers? How can researchers nurture public confidence in their own field? To answer these questions, we conducted eight focus groups with members of the public in Stockholm and Gavle, Sweden. Among the participants, there was a higher confidence in research perceived to be transparent, useful (preferably with well-defined results), free from financial interests, and understandable. Being conducted by dedicated researchers with a passion for their work – who can explain what they are doing, and why they are doing it – also boosted confidence. Factors that lowered perceived confidence include fraudulent behaviour, financial interests, no apparent benefits from the research, when researchers turn out to be wrong or when they contradict each other’s results. Here nutrition was repeatedly mentioned as an area with low confidence, due to inconsistent results being frequently reported in the media. Research seen as being too obscure, or too obvious, also received lower confidence ratings among participants. There was an overall positive view on researchers, with participants perceiving them to be highly intelligent, devoted to their work, creative, patient; while at the same time attributing them with stereotypical personal traits such as absentmindedness, social incompetence and an inability to explain their work to normal people. This presentation will discuss findings from the focus groups and their ramifications for researchers in their role as science communicators.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Science
Area of interest: Building a theoretical basis for science communication