On June 19, 2019, the Wellcome Trust released the first global study of public attitudes toward science and health, which surveyed 140,000 people in over 140 countries. The report, entitled the Wellcome Global Monitor 2018, shows that 72% of people in the world have a high or medium level of trust in scientists. Trust has far-reaching consequences, and according to Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, “No matter how great your idea, how exciting your new treatment, or how robust your science, it must be accepted by the people who stand to benefit from it.”
Those who believe that science benefits most people in society are more likely to have high trust in science. The level of inequality in a country also correlates with trust in scientists – the more inequality, the less trust in scientists. As such, citizens of developing countries have lower trust in scientists. Residents of the “Big Five” – China, U.S., Japan, Russia, and E.U. – have relatively high trust in scientists, and within that group, the U.S. ranks high – 25% high trust, 56% medium trust.
However, these national trends are reversed for trust in vaccines. Highly industrialized countries have lower trust in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines while developing countries have higher trust. Skepticism was highest in France, where a third of citizens believe that vaccines are unsafe. However, 2018 study by Research!America found that 92% of Americans thought that vaccines were very or somewhat important to the health of our society. The Wellcome survey found that globally, 92% of parents had vaccinated their children, but vaccination rates must reach 95% to achieve the herd immunity necessary to ensure universal protection.
Another notable finding in the Wellcome survey was a gender gap in confidence in scientific knowledge. Men were 11% more likely to claim that they knew a lot or some about science, even at comparable education levels. Men were also more likely to seek out information about science. However, the gap disappeared in one area – women were just as likely to research health and medical information.
Overall, the survey indicated that people were more willing to engage with health information than ‘pure’ science. Globally, 72% of people reported high or medium trust in scientists, but 84% said they had a lot or some trust in doctors and nurses. Similarly, a 2017 Research!America survey found that 79.3% of Americans viewed healthcare professionals as a very or somewhat trustworthy spokesperson for science.
In order to increase public engagement and trust in science, it is crucial that people feel they can participate. Mae Jemison – U.S. engineer, physician, and NASA astronaut – summed it up well at the Wellcome survey launch event on June 19, asking, “Are we making [the public] feel, and be, included?”
Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley joined a panel at Aspen Health on June 20 to discuss the report. Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement for Wellcome Trust, introduced the report’s findings. Woolley reviewed Research!America’s findings on vaccines and also pointed out some of the potential causes, such as “declining trust and confidence in our healthcare system, and an overall decline in respect for our elite institutions.” The full report, with data sets and graphs, is available on the Wellcome website.
Mary Woolley speaks on a panel at Aspen Ideas Health. Photo: Property of the Aspen Institute / Photo Credit: Ian Wagreich. Used with permission.