Knowledge-based public policy
Is the climate getting warmer? What kinds of food should we consume? What constitutes good healthcare? These questions are of high importance and have high political relevance. To answer such questions, one needs knowledge. Due to the complexity of the topics, producing this knowledge requires a systematic and collaborative effort.
Fortunately, we have such a system: we call it research.
Unfortunately, the public’s trust in research is not high enough to systematically ensure knowledge based public policy. Measures to change this, and to secure trust in research, are currently being enacted throughout the world, and these measures are changing the way researchers work.
Public trust in research
According to Pew Research Center, 76% of Americans have either a fair amount or a great deal of trust in researchers when it comes to whether researchers work towards the public interest (pewinternet.org). Even though the number could be higher, 76% is not catastrophic. (In comparison, the news media is at 38% and elected officials as low as 27%.)
However, when the respondents are asked about specific topics, like climate change and the safety of genetically modified food, trust declines. About a third of the respondents in the same survey believe that researchers have a poor understanding of these topics. Also, around 10% of the respondents believed that researchers do not understand the effects of the MMR-vaccine well.
For a researcher, these are high numbers, and probably the reason why politicians like Donald Trump can get away with supporting anti-vaccine activists, and accusing researchers of fabricating the climate crisis. Getting a third of the population to vote for you is usually sufficient to win the American presidential election.*
Why do people distrust research?
There are many possible explanations for why people distrust research. Most of the time, it is more important for people to be accepted by their social group than it is to be independent, rational and research-based (Greene 2009). If most of your friends believe that genetically enhanced food is dangerous, and discuss this topic often, you might have to pay a high price for disagreeing. Your friendships could deteriorate, and you might feel excluded when your friends discuss this topic.
Another issue is the fact that researchers sometimes cut corners and cheat. The research community is increasingly realizing that it is important to take an active role in securing public trust. As researchers, it is vital that we make sure our research is trustworthy.
Before the 80s, accusations of research misconduct were mostly unheard of. Since then, there has been an increasing consciousness around the fact that researchers sometimes cheat. They falsify and fabricate data, and they steal each other’s work. They also engage in all sorts of questionable grey area research practices. According to one meta-analysis, 2% of researchers admit to having committed serious misconduct in their research, while 33.7% admit to other questionable research practices (Fanelli 2009). As this behavior is self-reported, the numbers are probably even higher.
The realization that researchers are not as virtuous as once believed has led to the introduction of measures intended to secure the integrity of research. Supra-national institutions are enacting codes of conduct and principles for responsible research (see for example the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity by ALLEA). On the national level, institutions like universities, governmental agencies, and certain academic disciplines are also introducing such codes.
There has also been an increased focus on the working condition and incentives of researchers. The publish-or-perish aspect of the life of a researcher is getting much of the blame for misconduct among researchers.
Some, like the European Union, promote openness as part of the solution to the integrity issues in research. By making data and research results openly available, researchers can check each other’s work more easily. This makes the research in question more credible, as it makes it more difficult to get away with cheating. Making research available in this way is also supposed to promote collaboration and efficiency. It makes it easier for researchers to work on the same problems as other researchers, and it makes it unnecessary for multiple researchers to collect the same data individually.
Open to the world
Open science is not only an internal effort, where researchers are open towards each other. Openness towards the world is also a part of it, for example under terms such as responsible research and innovation (RRI) and public engagement.
As we have seen, people do not blindly accept scientific and technical progress (Macnaghten & Chilvers 2014). Instrumental value is not sufficient when it comes to securing the public’s trust. People are not radical techno-optimists; they also care about whether or not researchers have the right intentions, they care about the trustworthiness of those involved in research, they care about the pace of technological development, and they care about the effects of technology on social justice. Knowledge about these factors is ordinarily inaccessible to the public.
In RRI and public engagement, one attempts to bridge the gap between researchers and the public. By giving the public opportunities to discuss technological progress with researchers, many of the worries a person might have when it comes to technological developments can be addressed. People will get insight into how research works, and what kind of people are involved. People will also be able to raise ethical concerns and tell researchers about their needs and expectations.
Researchers can then address these ethical concerns, and adjust the technological development to better meet the needs of the public. In this way, new technologies and research will be better received when introduced into society. Involving ordinary people in research also increases the cost of choosing irrationality as a means to keep one’s place in a social group. When one gives input to researchers, one gets a stake in the results, which increases the cost of distrust.
Never waste a good crisis
In sum, the measures mentioned in this post are changing research. What constitutes good and responsible research, and what it means to have integrity as a researcher, is being standardized and formalized in as rules and ethical codes. Systematic efforts, like RRI and public engagement, are promoted as means for securing trust in research, bringing the public and research closer together. Open-access ideals are also making research more open internally so that the internal self-regulating mechanism of research are enhanced.
While researchers may worry about low public trust, research misconduct and low scientific standards as revealed in methodological crises like the replication crisis, these worries are leading to better research. As they say, one should never waste a good crisis, and in this case, the crisis is leading to better, more open and more responsible results.
* The last time 2/3 of the American electorate voted was in 1908. The last 50 years, turnout has mostly stayed below 60%, and it has never exceeded 62,5% (electproject.org).
Knut Jørgen Vie is a PhD student at the Work Research Institute (AFI) at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University (formerly Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences), and part of the PRINTEGER-project.
Photo: Ainar Miyata-Sturm