Strengthening trust in science and technology

Comments to 8th Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science Technology and Innovation for the SDGs

Sir Peter Gluckman
President, International Science Council
United Nations, New York
May 3 2023

Trust in science can be compromised by both internal and external factors. Science is still coming to terms with how it should interact with both society and policy makers, although much progress has been made since in recent decades. But there is still much more to do in how science is conducted, where it is done, and who does it. And scientific hubris remains a challenge.

Externally, science faces undermining by interest groups, disinformation and willful ignorance by those whose interests and biases are confronted by science. Distrust in science has been enveloped in overall declining trust in elites and experts. And, worryingly, science denial has become a badge of partisan affiliation. In the policy community, assumptions that Wikipedia can provide and replace expert input is too common, and the role of experts has been diminished in the public eye.

Science must learn how to better work alongside other knowledge systems and recognise where it has limits and where it has a particular contribution. Science may sometimes be presented as having the answer, rather than informing what we know, what we don’t know, the uncertainties that remain, and the options that emerge. Beyond science, other non-scientific considerations, whether at individual, collective national or multilateral levels, are always involved in those choices.  Science is trusted best when it recognises these limits.

The same considerations exist in achieving trust with the policy maker. The science brokerage mechanism requires people who understand these issues, the cultures of policy and science, and that a plurality of inputs from social and natural sciences are always needed. Science advisory mechanisms need to be built around experts in brokerage, rather than around scientists whose reputation may be great but narrowly focused. It must have the mechanisms established to seek out pluralistic input from the science and technology community.

But with rapidly moving technologies, other skills are also needed – those of foresight and risk assessment.

As the world edges closer to a cluster of existential and sustainability crises, the world needs trusted advice and trusted communication. These are particular skills that must be both fostered and processes established well in advance of a crisis.

Trust must be earned, and how scientists act in both the public and policy domains is important. Conspiracy and misinformation cannot be dealt with through simple fact checking; it is by understanding the worldviews of others and entering dialogue that progress is made. That dialogue needs to be mindful that the disinformation environment reinforces biases. Being honest about processes, complexity and uncertainty, and leaving our hubris at the door, is all part of building and sustaining trust.