Public Expects The Impossible From Science

A new public opinion poll from MORI shows that over 60% of British adults expect the impossible from science.

The MORI poll, commissioned to mark the opening of the new Science Media Centre, shows that 71% of the public look to scientists to give an ‘agreed view’ about science issues and 61% expect science to provide 100% guarantees about the safety of medicines. Yet most scientists insist that science cannot and should not deliver either.

Dr Mark Peplow, Science Information Officer at the SMC says:

“The public’s expectations of what science can deliver are wide of the mark. Disagreement is a fundamental part of scientific enquiry – it makes science stronger by weeding out the weaker theories. And although scientists are always striving for knowledge, they can rarely provide cast-iron certainty about safety.”

However, the blame for the public’s misconception may rest with scientists themselves. A staggering 85% of the public feel that scientists need to improve the way they communicate their research findings to the public through the media.

The poll also confirms the importance of the media in informing and influencing public opinion on science. 9 out of 10 people rely on the media for at least some of their information about science, with television news cited as the main source (68%). Yet other surveys have shown that only 7% of scientists spontaneously think of the media as an important group to communicate with and two-thirds of scientists admit to not having spoken to the media in the previous year.

The MORI poll findings confirm a clear role for the new Science Media Centre that opens today (Tuesday 2nd April) with the aim of helping to renew public trust in science by encouraging more scientists to engage with the media. The Centre, housed within the Royal Institution, has been set up by scientists who acknowledge that their traditional reluctance to deal with the media has contributed to declining levels of public support and could threaten the future of scientific progress.

Fiona Fox, Head of the Science Media Centre, said:

“On the one hand we have a public with an apparently poor grasp of the way science works and on the other hand we have many scientists who are equally poor at engaging with the media. This poll shows why we need something like the Science Media Centre to bring the two together.

“Given the major decisions that society will have to make over the coming years about issues like cloning, genetically modified foods, global warming and so on, this poll should be a wake up call for all those who want a well informed debate about scientific development.”

In some good news for scientists, the poll findings suggest that bruising encounters like the BSE crisis and the controversies over GM foods and the MMR vaccine have not affected overall support for science. 87% of the public agree that on the whole science has had a positive impact on society and only 3% disagree.

But there’s further bad news for the Government. The poll shows that only 1% of the public trust politicians the most to give accurate and balanced information about the combined MMR vaccine and its safety for children. The poll confirms that doctors are the group most trusted on MMR (69%) and that scientists who are funded by the Government are less likely to be trusted than those funded by academia (7% compared to 26%).

Vivienne Parry, member of the SMC Board and former Tomorrow’s World presenter, said:

“The results of this poll show clearly why the government’s MMR message failed. The question parents ask of doctors is ‘If you were me what would you do?’, but what they ask of scientists is, ‘Can you guarantee this is 100% safe?’. And since science can’t deliver this answer, of course the public’s trust in science will evaporate. It shows how the Science Media Centre needs to focus not just on what science does but also how it works and what the public should expect from it.”

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