November 10, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science and trust – the sequel

In 2018 a new ‘International Science Council’ (ICS) was established and I wrote a blog post in which I critically dissected the announcement of this launch. I tried to show that this announcement seemed to perpetuate a series of misconceptions relating to science and trust.

At the end of October 2023, the ISC Centre for Science Futures and the UNESCO Chair on Science Communication as Public Good published a research paper on public trust in science entitled “The contextualization deficit: Reframing trust in science for multilateral policy”. I was curious to find out what it said about science communication and trust….

In the following, I’ll first discuss the premise of the report; then I’ll summarise what the reports regards as an outdated model of science communication and trust in science; after that I’ll discuss some of the main recommendations for a new model, before coming to some final thoughts on a rather positive aspect of the report, namely science policy success stories. I’ll end with an epilogue on recent developments, where I argue that politics might be the main driver of trust rather than science.

The premise

The main premise of the report seems to be that “When trust in science wavers, the foundation for cohesive and evidence-based global policy weakens.” And the main question asked in the report is: How can one tackle grand societal challenges in a situation where trust in science is in decline?’

The answer seems to be that science should be more embedded in policy and publics – what the report calls the socialisation of science – and that scientists should be more aware of the contexts in which they operate – the contextualisation of science. Overall, the report believes that trust in science is enhanced if science is “more effectively socialized with policy” (p. 8).

However, I wonder whether the report got things the wrong way round. Instead of assuming that a wavering of trust in science weakens evidence-based policy making, should one not say “When trust in political institutions and policy makers wavers, trust in science weakens and the foundation for cohesive and evidence-based policy making is eroded”?

Rather than putting the onus on science/scientists to restore trust in science, the onus would be on policy makers to restore trust in social institutions including science.

Keeping this in mind, I shall now summarise some views on an ‘old’ model of science communication as expressed in the working paper, before coming to the new model.

The old model of science communication and public trust

Reading through the report, one can extract various negative assessments of the current or old model of science communication (summarised as section titles below). It is against this background that the report projects a new form of science communication that is supposed to be more trustworthy.

Science communication is expected to achieve universal trust/compliance naturally
The preface to the report says: “The research suggests that the expectation that ‘trust in science’ should lead naturally to universal public compliance, although often criticized, still prevails among policy (and scientific) circles.” (p. 5) I wonder who might hold such an opinion.

Science communication is linear, one-way, top down
The report says: “Current engagement at the science–policy–society interface is stuck in a linear model intended to increase broad public trust in messages based on the current scientific consensus. If there is no public compliance, the assumption is that there is a deficit of appreciation by ‘the public’.” (p. 8) This linear model is also top-down and one-way. “One-way engagement at the science–policy–society interface fails to consider the scientific, social, political and cultural contexts within which these messages are being delivered.” (p. 40)

Again, one may ask where the evidence is for this. Even the UK government was aware that tailoring messages to particular cultural contexts during Covid was a good idea.

The dissemination of trusted knowledge transforms societies for the better
The authors claim that the general assumption underlying an outdated model of science communicating is that “the dissemination of trusted scientific knowledge and associated technological innovations is assumed to transform societies for the better”. (p. 15) Some policy makers might assume that, but I very much doubt social and behavioural scientists or seasoned science communicators would.

Science communication is there to foster blanket trust
The report recommends that “Rather than solely focusing on promoting blanket public trust in scientific messages, it is argued here that efforts should prioritize building trustworthiness in scientific organizations and processes.” (p. 29) Again, I wonder whether there are any science communicators out there advocating blanket public trust in scientific messages?

Science communication seeks to achieve universally equal levels of trust
And finally: The report highlights “the problem of seeking a silver bullet to achieve universally equal levels of trust in science as a global enterprise”. (p. 22) Really?

Looking at these summaries of old-style science communication, one can’t fail to wonder whether these are genuine misunderstandings of what’s currently going on or if these are indeed strawmen.

The new model of science communication and public trust

It is obvious that the report doesn’t want science communication to be linear, top-down and so on. Another major flaw of old-style science communication highlighted in the report is its apparent disregard for context; the old model has a ‘deficit’ in contextualisation, just as an even older model of science communication purportedly had a deficit model of public understanding of science. So, what does a new model of science, communication and trust that does away with both deficits look like?

The new model is projected against the backdrop of the old model summarised above but also, surprisingly, grounded in newer developments in science communication, namely ‘reflexive and or evolved communication’ which actually “​​acknowledges the complexity and contextual nature of scientific facts […] and aims to produce ‘serviceable truths’ that consider a range of perspectives, disciplines and contexts” (p. 45), rather than just disseminate authoritative facts. So, all is not lost when it comes to science communication, it seems. But the above-mentioned strawmen are ever present in the background. (The notion of serviceable truths would need further discussion, but I am running out of space.)

The new model is framed in terms of the ‘socialisation’ and ‘contextualisation’ of science. The report proposes “a new model of engagement in which science is more effectively socialized with policy. This will involve understanding the four drivers that shape any context in which science can be applied to policy: scientific uncertainty, different publics’ value systems, historical relationships between policy institutions and their publics and relationships between organized science and political power.” (p. 8) This means: “A revised view of the socialization of science-policy highlights the dynamic, non-linear relationships between science, policy, societal impact and the four drivers of contextualization.” (p. 39)

The authors want science to be ‘socialised’ and contextualised in new ways. “A successful partnership between science, policy and society requires influential actors to understand and appreciate the contexts they are seeking to transform, and open up space to renegotiate established ways of doing things. In this way, science becomes ‘socialized’ with policy-making institutions and their constituent publics.” (p. 11)

Should science really seek to ‘transform contexts’? Science works within certain political contexts and can be used by policy makers to transform such contexts or not. Science communication, too, has to work within these contexts and recognise contextual factors, but it should not be used to transform such contexts according to political whims and wishes.

It seems that the report elides science, science policy, science-based policy, science communication, and science policy communication and pertains only to a very narrow part of the scientific spectrum.

Having said that, I fully agree with one of the key take-aways of the report, namely that “Trust in science is not uniform and varies depending on the issue and its proposed solutions. Different communities have varying levels of trust, and trust in specific areas of science, technology and engineering may differ significantly.” (p. 29)

Scientists and policy makers should be aware of such context-dependent differences of trust in science, and many do. But what about trust in politics? This too is not uniform and differs according to context. These differences have major impacts on trust in science, especially in times of the growing polarisation of politics and society. (Covid seems to have increased both polarisation and trust in science in the UK, for example, while it has increased polarisation and decreased trust in science in parts of the US political spectrum).

Overall, the report sets out proposals about how to better navigate between science, policy and publics. It tries to give publics more room to move in this space and to make it clear to science policy actors that they have to explore this space thoroughly when trying to enact policies; that they have to know the context in which they and the publics they interact with operate. This is a noble aspiration, but can it work in reality?

Case studies of successful science/policy interventions

Yes, there seem to be really great stories to tell about cases in which scientists, policy makers and people have worked together rather successfully. Such case studies are interspersed throughout the text and well worth a read, from vaccinations in India, to the management of Ebola in Africa, to a great number of projects in citizen participation, to water management in New Zealand based on ‘co-governance’.

These are all great examples where collaborations between natural and social scientists and local people and policy makers overcame obstacles and misunderstandings and finally worked, and that’s really worth reading about. However, after the most recent election in New Zealand the co-governance highlighted in the report is now threatened, as the party that won the largest block of votes is opposed to such efforts (things are probably more complicated, but that’s politics for you).

This may show yet again the primacy of politics over science and the fact that political context shapes science, policy and trust, as well as science communication, not the other way round.


I was reading this ISC report while following the Covid inquiry here in the UK which has shone a light on the dysfunctional relationship between science and politics.

In a recent article, Christina Pagel, one of many excellent science/covid communicators active during the pandemic, wrote poignantly that testimony given at the inquiry demonstrated “that the UK was governed by people making policy on the hoof. The government ignored much of the evidence assembled by their own scientific advisers, turning to those outside the consensus when they didn’t like the conclusions.”

And Devi Sridhar, another prominent covid communicator, pointed out in a recent article that scientific “advisers’ views were often marginalised, and they ultimately had limited influence on No 10’s decision-making”. Politics trumped science and science communication. This does not have to be so. As Sridhar says: “Taking a different approach, the Scottish government made the decision to bring critics into the room to help diversify the views expressed and avoid groupthink.” This is exactly what the ISC report calls for, but which is so difficult to achieve in certain political contexts.

What needs to be restored, at least in the UK, is perhaps not so much trust in science, but trust in politics and trust in the use of science and scientists in the political process, especially the scientific advisory system.

This will depend not only on scientists and science communicators, but even more so on politicians and policy makers, willing to engage with scientists and publics in intelligent, honest, respectful and considerate ways. Only then can science advice, and science communication work in the ways outlined in the report (see p. 45) and only then can trust in politics and science be restored.

Image: by Arek Socha from Pixabay





Posted in science communication