“We need to understand not just the rhetoric of trust, but the mechanisms of trust.”
“Building trust is an explicit process that depends on human beings and the institutions they create, and the choices that both human beings and those institutions make. Trust is in itself something about which we actually have a great deal to learn.”—Molly Jahn
Does the public trust science? Scientists? Scientific organizations? What roles do trust and the lack of trust play in public debates about how science can be used to address such societal concerns as childhood vaccination, cancer screening, and a warming planet? What could happen if social trust in science or scientists faded? Those types of questions led the Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences (PILS) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a 2-day workshop on May 5-6, 2015 in Washington, DC on public trust in science.
The vision of the PILS Roundtable is that all scientists will have access to the knowledge and tools needed to develop proactive, collaborative, science-based approaches to public engagement in the life sciences. As a science communicator, PILS member, and co-organizer of this workshop, Rick Borchelt of the US Department of Energy, has thought a lot about scientists’ engagement with the public. Borchelt said that George Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte is to him the perfect metaphor for science communication (Figure 1-1). An example of pointallism2, the painting’s picture emerges from the blend of about 3 million dots. “Scientists,” Borchelt says, “are very effective at talking about those dots, but the public wants to know about the picture.” Borchelt thinks that for scientists today, however, it’s not only about connecting the dots to the larger picture but about whether scientists can communicate with members of the public in a way that maintains trust, that doesn’t offend values that people hold dear, and that doesn’t hype or oversell the science. Borchelt emphasized that communication has become an issue of managing the trust portfolio of life scientists, their institutions, and the collective life-sciences community.
2 A form of painting in which tiny dots of primary-colors are used to form images and secondary colors.
Figure 1-1 A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Borchelt used this painting by Georges Seurat to illustrate the state of practice of science communication among research scientists. Scientists describe the dots. Members of the public want to understand the picture. SOURCE: Borchelt Workshop Slide 7
Plant breeder, PILS member, and workshop co-organizer Molly Jahn provided her perspective on the changing nature of trust in science in her opening remarks. She said that the world is facing a number of choice points such as the actions to take in order to address issues discussed at the UN conferences on climate change or to achieve the sustainability goals set out in the Millennium Transition Goals. She emphasized that the world faces a number of tough problems, such as the pressures on the food system for animal derived protein, for which there are not yet solutions. Even though science is crucial to each of those topics, she said, “science doesn’t rule,” but rather, “we’re in dialogue” – science is not the only voice in conversations about the future of society.
She recalled a visit to her university by an agency just as a set of new technologies were being developed and applied to plant breeding—technologies that offer a lot of potential. The agency asked them to “keep things ordinary and not make any mistakes, because they were in important discussions about the technologies.” At that moment Jahn recognized that the regulatory process is also a negotiated process.
“Building trust,” Jahn said, “is an explicit process that depends on human beings and the institutions they create—and the choices they make. It is not a monolithic feature of how humans work, but operates on many levels. It can be stewarded, built, protected, and broken.”
It was in that context that the workshop explored the meaning of trust in science, how trust is established and maintained, and how it can be lost and rebuilt. The 2-day workshop included presentations and panel discussions by experts from academia, the federal government, the media, and non-profit organizations. Speakers examined a number of themes, including how trust in science is defined, what is known about the public’s perception of science and scientists, factors that can enhance and erode trust in science, and how scientists and institutions can build and maintain trust. The workshop concluded with breakout sessions and a plenary discussion that explored factors that can constrain or increase trust in the fields of vaccination, synthetic biology, and breast cancer screening. The sessions allowed participants to develop and share ideas for building, maintaining, and restoring trust in those fields. The workshop agenda is provided in Appendix A. The statement of task for the workshop planning committee is presented in Box 1-1.
An ad hoc committee will plan and convene a public workshop to explore public confidence and trust in key elements of the life sciences enterprise-- e.g., its institutions, the science/discovery process, and in scientists themselves. The workshop will feature invited presentations and provide opportunities for discussion between expert researchers and practitioners in complementary fields that often operate in relative isolation from one another, such as decision making and risk analysis, science communication, cognitive science, behavioral economics, diffusion-of-innovation theory, and the life sciences (e.g. agricultural and food sciences, ecology, and biomedical sciences). Workshop discussions will explore empirical evidence on public opinion and attitudes toward life sciences as they relate to societal issues, whether and how contentious debate about select life science topics mediates trust (for example, de-extinction, synthetic biology, embryonic stem cells, and genetically modified organisms, among others), and the roles that scientists, business, media, community groups, and other stakeholders play in creating and maintaining public confidence in life sciences. The workshop will highlight research on the elements of trust and how to build, mend, or maintain trust; and examine best practices in the context of scientist engagement with lay audiences around social issues. The committee will develop the agenda topics, select and invite speakers and discussants, and moderate the discussions. An individually authored summary of the presentations and discussions at the workshop will be prepared by a designated rapporteur in accordance with institutional guidelines.
The workshop was attended by 78 persons, 86 joined via webcast, and on-line participants were encouraged to ask questions and contribute to discussions via Twitter at #NASInterface. Archived videos of all presentations are available on the PILS Web site.3 The list of participants who attended in person and biographies of speakers and the workshop planning committee can be found in Appendixes B and C, respectively.
Written by a rapporteur, this publication is a factual summary of the workshop’s presentations and discussions. The workshop organizing committee did not participate in the writing of this summary. The opinions expressed in the summary are those of the individual workshop participants and are not necessarily the opinions of all workshop participants, the organizing committee, or the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This document does not establish any conclusions or recommendations of the National Academies; instead, it focuses on the issues and ideas presented by the speakers and workshop participants.