Watch the replay of the event held February 23, 2021. (Transcript below.)

Covid-19 has thrust science into the public consciousness. In the past year, the study of public health, mRNA technology, developmental psychology, immunology, behavior, and many others besides, have enjoyed a previously unimaginable level of attention.

What effect is this having on how science and scientists are viewed by the public? In the United States, a growing number of people say that they will get vaccinated against Covid-19, but a sizable minority will not. And, while 85 percent of adults have confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public, only 39 percent have “a great deal of confidence” in this.

We may have reached a pivotal moment in the relationship between science and the public. This discussion will explore attitudes to science, how they have changed in the past year and the role that group identities play in shaping people’s views. It will also consider the lessons that science should learn from these responses, as well as from the pandemic.


A photo of Cary Funk

Cary Funk, Director of Science and Society Research, Pew Research Center

Cary Funk has specialized in public understanding of science topics for nearly two decades. She leads the Pew Research Center’s studies on the social, ethical and policy implications of areas such as climate and energy, genetic engineering, and space science. She has authored reports focused on public trust in science, scientific experts and science news and information. Previously, she directed the Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Surveys, and worked at CBS News on election polling and analysis. She has a doctorate in social psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

A photo of Harvey Fineberg

Harvey Fineberg, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Harvey Fineberg chairs the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats. He has made numerous contributions in health policy and medical decision-making focused on policy development and implementation, assessment of medical technology, evaluation and use of vaccines, and dissemination of medical innovations. He was formerly Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, Provost of Harvard University, and President of the Institute of Medicine (now National Academy of Medicine).


A photo of Richard Gallagher

Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-in-Chief, Annual Reviews

Richard Gallagher has served as Senior Editor of Science, Chief Biology Editor of Nature and Editor-in-Chief of The Scientist. He has a PhD in cell biology, and spent 10 years in research, five as Wellcome Trust Lecturer in Immunology at Trinity College, University of Dublin, Ireland, working on the immunopathology of celiac disease.

(Note: The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is a major supporter of Knowable Magazine.)


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This event is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series of live events and science journalism exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward.

Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Knowable Magazine is a product of Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


Richard Gallagher: “Hi. Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest in the Knowable Magazine Reset events series. This is one of a number of live events that we have under the Reset banner. Reset is a project that focuses on the science of crisis and recovery, that explores how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, the consequences of the pandemic, and the way forward. It’s supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Upcoming events in the next few weeks will include food security, Covid and inequality, and learning and child development. And if you have a topic that you think we should cover, please get in touch with us.

“As we, or at least as I hope we gradually ease out of this emergency, our intention is to continue to do live online events broadening out the range of topics that we cover. Again, if there’s an issue from the world of science that you’d like to suggest, the editors of Knowable would be very happy to hear from you. As you probably know, Knowable is freely accessible to all. I’d like to ask you to consider supporting us to keep this free resource available by making a one-off gift or a monthly gift to us. As a thank-you, we’ll invite you to virtual coffee breaks or maybe even virtual cocktail parties, where you can chat with the editors and meet with other donors from all around the world. So look out for information on that on the Knowable page.

“We’re well into the hour now, so I think we can begin the event, and I’d like to welcome you all to it. Thank you very much for joining us. Today, we’re discussing how the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced public attitudes toward science. We’ll also address the reverse of that question, namely how attitudes to science have influenced the course of the pandemic.

“I’m Richard Gallagher, I’m the president and editor-in-chief of Annual Reviews, which publishes Knowable Magazine. I’m joined today by two very distinguished guests, Cary Funk and Harvey Fineberg.

“Cary is director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center. She is the doyenne of research on public opinion regarding science topics. Over almost two decades, Cary has examined the social, ethical and policy implications of issues like climate and energy science, genetic engineering, and space research. She’s author of reports on public trust and science, on trust and mistrust of scientific experts, and on how the public seeks out and consumes science news and information. Previously, she directed the Virginia Commonwealth University life sciences surveys, and she has a background at CBS News, working on election polling and analysis.

“Harvey Fineberg is president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He also chairs the National Academies’ Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats. His illustrious career has been at the intersection of research, medical decision-making and health-care policy, including the evaluation and use of vaccines. He’s served as dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, as provost of Harvard University and as president of the Institute of Medicine, now the National Academy of Medicine. Just in the interest of transparency, I want to note that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provides grant support for Knowable Magazine. If you have any questions that you would like to ask, please add them to the chat and I will bring them to the experts during the course of the next hour.

“So, Harvey and Cary, thank you very much for joining us. Let’s jump right in. Cary, are you able to discern changes in attitudes to science in general during the pandemic? Has the needle moved on the public’s trust of science and of scientists over the last year?

Cary Funk: “Yes. Thank you. Again, thank you for having me here, I’m looking forward to this session. At Pew Research Center, we do public opinion surveys regularly. It’s still early in some ways in the course of this pandemic, but we’ve seen a lot going on in a short period of time and I just want to recognize kind of the big pattern picture. The first is kind of last March when things were just shutting down around the country, we had kind of a moment of bipartisan agreement that these kinds of restrictions were necessary, but within about a month to six weeks, we started to see a more political conversation around the handling of the outbreak, around the need for restrictions, around the dual concerns of how to support the economy and how to address this public health threat.

“So those forces really have continued over time, and they are also at work in how people are still thinking about the pandemic and what to do about it, including the urgency around some of these actions. So, one of the main things we’re talking about right now in the scientific community is how much does the public trust scientists and their work, and has it been influenced by the pandemic? We have a couple of reads on that so far, and what we’re seeing is an uptick overall in the share of Americans who have kind of a stronger level of trust in scientists to act in the best interest of the public.

“But that uptick has been uneven across Americans. In particular, you’re seeing an increase of trust or confidence among Democrats, and among Republicans it’s been flat or even looks like it’s tilting a little bit downward. So as a result, what we’re seeing now is a more political or politicized conversation, people like to say, around trust in scientists. We’re really seeing more political divide now in terms of people’s trust in scientists than we have since we started measuring this in 2016.”

Richard Gallagher: “Thanks very much. Let’s come back to the politics in a little bit. But Harvey, a particular challenge in a pandemic is the need for coordinated action by essentially everyone in the population. You’ve described decision-making as partly intellectual and partly emotional. Given this, what do you think are the best ways of communicating public health advice in general and during this pandemic in particular?”

Harvey Fineberg: “Well, thank you, Richard. Let me just add what a pleasure it is to be with you and with Cary on this occasion. Your question is really at the heart of public trust and confidence in science, in health leaders, in political leadership, because they all have to go together if in a country as diverse and as independent-minded as the United States we’re to mobilize significant and sufficient public action to respond effectively to a pandemic such as the one that we’re experiencing. Here in the United States, we have a built-in diffusion of authority and responsibility by our federal system.

“The federal national government has a certain level of preeminent responsibility, but states, sovereign in certain domains, including in many public health activities, also have independent decision-making authority. And the implementation of programs really comes down often to the effectiveness at counties and levels of institutions that are delivering the care directly. The kind of public confidence that you’re describing in part relates to confidence in your immediate health-care professional, confidence in the larger public health community, confidence in the scientific expert community, and ultimately confidence in our political leadership in terms of directing, guiding and overseeing the response to the pandemic.

“So all of these levels come into play, and public trust is always at risk in a pandemic — complicated, evolving, dynamic, and sometimes controversial.”

Richard Gallagher: “Well, let’s …”

Cary Funk: “You want to add on to that …”

Richard Gallagher: “Go ahead, Cary.”

Cary Funk: “It’s a good point that there are a lot of different actors involved in the pandemic and people are making judgments about all these different groups as well as individuals. Just would point out that one area where there is kind of strong, positive public sentiment has to do with the handling of hospitals and medical centers around the country. Again, large shares of Americans say they’re doing an excellent or good job, and you see that across the board.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Yeah. Your point is so well-taken. This pandemic is a public health crisis to be sure, but it’s also a medical care crisis. It’s also an economic crisis, Richard, as you pointed out, and it’s an educational crisis for our children. Broadly, it is a social crisis. So there are many layers of concern and sense of urgency that we’re dealing with simultaneously. And your point, Cary, about public appreciation of our hospital professionals is so well-taken, and isn’t it true broadly that nurses are the profession in general most trusted by the public? Doesn’t your survey research demonstrate that, Cary?”

Cary Funk: “They’re certainly one of the more trusted occupations, but among several others. But nurses are often getting positive ratings. Just are doctors, just to add that in, as are medical doctors and others in the health-care profession.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Well, that’s encouraging to me.”

Richard Gallagher: “Well, not to throw a spanner in the works, but let’s look at the fractures in support along political lines, along race and ethnic lines, stratification by age — of course many young people realize that they are not especially at risk here and it’s particularly difficult for them to fall into line with the rules. Maybe there are differences between urban and rural attitudes. How does this play out, Cary, in overall support for science and in specific topics like support for vaccination?”

Cary Funk: “Yeah, I think that’s an important point. Let me start with a point of conversation around the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black Americans. In general, I’d say we see that in statistics around the country. In Pew Research Center surveys, we see, I think, more than 7 in 10 Black Americans know someone who has been hospitalized or died from the coronavirus, so the impact is certainly experienced among many.

“And what we see in the surveys is actually a complicated portrait, in that on average, Black adults tend to have heightened concern about the coronavirus. They’re following news about the coronavirus, they are more likely to see the outbreak as a public health threat, they’re more likely to be concerned about the personal impact of the disease as well. But when it comes to the vaccine or a vaccine at this point — earlier in the surveys, it was a hypothetical vaccine, not yet available. But when it came to thinking about vaccines, you saw Black adults tending to be more hesitant. There’s a share that have been kind of consistently saying they would get the coronavirus vaccine, but there’s a larger group among Black Americans who said that they either kind of wavered over time in our surveys or that they were more inclined to kind of wait or they’d be uncomfortable being first.

“So there’s certainly been a lot of concern about that. There are other groups to talk about, but maybe we could talk about what’s going on among Black Americans first.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Of course, there’s a …”

Richard Gallagher: “Well, Harvey …”

Harvey Fineberg: “Yeah, I was going to say there’s a long history of Black American discrimination and prejudice in medical care as in society broadly, and that feeds into the skepticism, hesitancy, Cary, that you’re describing. Do you see anything in your research that points to ways to overcome that legacy of skepticism and hesitancy? Do you see glimmers of a difference of those who are willing, for example, as compared to those who say, ‘No, no. I want to wait.’”

Cary Funk: “Yeah, that’s a great question. This is one of the reasons why we talk so much about trust in scientists. And in this case, one of the kind of biggest factors, predictive factors in terms of people’s interest in getting a coronavirus vaccine, has to do with their level of trust in the vaccine research and development process. So on average, Black adults are a little lower in that level of trust, but those who are more negative about it are particularly disinclined to be vaccinated. So this is why you’re seeing a lot of efforts, I think, around the country to work in Black communities, to listen, and potentially build bridges among those who are more hesitant, reluctant, or just have questions.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Personally, I would love to see more African-American scientists represented in the promotions of the vaccines. I’d love to see more community leaders, religious leaders, figures who are trusted, play a more prominent role, including celebrities, sports figures, entertainment experts who are trusted by the public for many reasons or at least loved by the public. To me, that would make a lot of sense for reaching levels of trust and confidence in our communities that are harder to reach.”

Richard Gallagher: “Let’s talk a little bit about leadership at the national level, at the political level. We have a question from an audience member who said, ‘Could it be that change in perception of the value in part of science or the general public attitude to science is affected by the way that it has been used by politicians?’ Do you think that there’s been effective political leadership? And do you think that scientists have been effective in getting the politicians to use science in making recommendations and making rules for us to follow?”

Harvey Fineberg: “Maybe I’ll start with that charged question. With political interests, we’re always at risk. Evidence of any kind can be adapted, distorted, manipulated to serve an alternative interest, including a political interest. One of the prime responsibilities of scientists, whether in academic settings or corporate settings or government settings, is to remain faithful to the science, to direct their assessments and discussions entirely based on what the science teaches, what the science tells. How political figures may utilize that information and select from among the array of scientific evidence that is at the present time available, that’s a separate and very challenging issue.

“It’s hard to differentiate as a layperson those scientific assertions which are well-grounded and widely accepted in the scientific community from the assertions which may sound as authoritative, but really be quite a fringe opinion and outside the range of accepted scientific evidence at this time. So it’s a continuing challenge. We rely on scientists who have the integrity to stay with the science, and political figures who have the awareness and the understanding, who appreciate the science even as they then make decisions that are partly informed by other interests, as inevitably they will be.

“So we try to keep the science as clean, clear and consistent as possible as the evidence dictates and recognize that, politically, that may or may not serve interests of the moment. The good politician, like the good scientist, goes on the basis of the evidence and makes decisions in the public interest based on what the scientific evidence shows. That’s what we hope for in a society that depends on political leadership as we do.”

Cary Funk: “Just to add a kind of different lens on this, just to back up a little bit, I think one of the elements of this moment has to do with the degree to which publics are seeing scientific advisors directly influencing government action. I think to a greater degree, this has been going on of course, all the time, but it’s not always so much in the public view. So what you’re seeing both in the US and around the world has been this kind of scientists at the center of advising government policy. So it’s an open question how that works in people’s minds. Does that encourage them, or discourage them, or maybe something in between? We may well see over time that the impact also varies across countries.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Cary, do you think the quality of the scientific individuals in terms of their ability to communicate clearly, consistently, accurately, does that matter to public understanding?”

Cary Funk: “I mean, yes. Obviously, there’s lots of people who try to communicate science and sometimes it’s directly the scientists, sometimes they’re kind of intermediaries who can help translate what goes on in a lab to what people want to hear about and can understand easily. So there’s lots of layers of public communication about science and how it works. I think that’s the other piece that’s going on, is that collectively, we have learned a lot about a coronavirus that we’d never heard of before. We’ve learned a lot about the processes of how you develop something like a new vaccine, and we’ve also learned a lot about some of the uncertainties in science and the evolution of knowledge and understanding. So there’s a lot to take in.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Yeah. If I could just follow up a bit on this, Cary, because one of the big challenges for scientists, for the scientists, for the scientific community, is looking at policy is recognizing that we’re in a very dynamic situation. Knowledge evolves, the virus itself can change, the circumstances that we understand about the dynamics of the epidemic also change over time. Do you have any advice for scientists trying to communicate this degree of confidence with a measure of uncertainty about where things are and where they could go?”

Cary Funk: “I can’t really give you the magic advice, but I think you are hitting on the key puzzle, which is, there’s fundamental uncertainty in all of science. And how do you express that even when there’s kind of a degree of consensus as people talk about, scientific consensus around certain findings, even when there still some bit of uncertainty in those findings? So it’s a really difficult challenge.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Yeah. I sometimes think, you know, we teach arithmetic, I wish we taught every child probability.”

Cary Funk: “I think the other part of it is there’s lots of things that we have attitudes and beliefs and views about that we don’t always know the inside workings of. And that’s OK. It’s perfectly OK. So people’s views about science can be influenced by all sorts of other things in addition to how much they know about it or understand about it. And one of the key challenges right now is kind of just showing the relevance of science, the potential of science for people’s lives.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Yeah. If your refrigerator, your automobile, your mobile phone is all a mystery to you, how do you differentiate what’s real in science from the things that are ingenuinely magical, imaginary, and non-existent? I think it’s sometimes hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins.”

Richard Gallagher: “Of course, a lot of people take their reality from social media. And we have a question about the role of social media, and there are pros and cons to it. But the question from Suzanne is, ‘Do you think the general decrease in public confidence in science, if there is one, is correlated with the increased use of social media? Not very good education in schools regarding science or some other factors.’ I’d specifically would like to talk a little bit about social media though.”

Cary Funk: “I’ll just start on this. There’s a lot going on here and it’s probably a complicated relationship. Big picture, obviously social media has fundamentally changed our access to information, and it fundamentally changes who can share information with a wide number of people and how quickly information can spread around the world, really.

“So that really has changed our information environment. How it works in terms of attitudes is probably pretty complicated. I’d say the areas where I’m seeing research, not so much Pew Research Center work but by others, is focused more on the spread of particular types of information. Let’s say, how does misinformation spread across social networks and what are the consequences of that? I’d say that is one source of how misinformation can spread that just wasn’t open to us before when we didn’t have these kinds of channels.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Richard, you could perhaps think of a contrast to decades ago when in the United States there were three major networks broadcasting evening news to the public. And each of those networks had an audience, and each of the producers and newscasters exercised a degree of selectivity about what was going to be transmitted to the public. And certainly, truthfulness or accuracy was a prime expectation of the ethics of the news business, that what you conveyed had to be correct.

“I suspect — and maybe Cary has done the studies, but I suspect — if you looked at social media and what is repeated, transmitted, widely distributed, broadly accepted, and you asked, ‘What are the attributes that apply to this? Where did it originate? How much of it is exciting and unexpected?’ And so on down the line, including, ‘Is it truthful? Is it correct?’ My suspicion, let me say, my suspicion is that the truthfulness or correctness, accuracy of the content would be pretty far down the list of the determinants, if at all, of how widespread, accepted and disseminated that piece of social media is. I think that’s a big challenge for us.”

Cary Funk: “I’ll just add one other lens to this, just possibly just to be contrarian. The other thing we see so often in public opinion surveys is people say that they’re skeptical about what they see on social media, they know that not all of it is to be trusted, but they also are seeing a much wider range of things that you might consider science in connection with what’s out there. So it has created all these new avenues that people can connect with science. You might disagree because we’ve been actually debating about what gets under the umbrella of science for decades, but it is perhaps shifting or it has the potential to shift how people think about what is science and how it connects with their lives.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Oh, I think that’s a really important point, especially when you add in the community science movement, the public science movement, the fact of open science being able to be conducted in ways via social media that were just unimaginable even a decade ago. So there definitely are these positive aspects to it. The balance between how much good in disseminating, appreciation, use and understanding of science on the one side versus the ease and facility of disseminating incorrect, false and misleading information on the other, that’s kind of a race between good and evil of the social media.”

Richard Gallagher: “So we definitely have communities within the country and around the world that don’t accept science’s recommendations on any particular topic. What’s the best way of engaging with those groups to try to bring them around, if I can put it like that? Should we engage with them? Should we try to — I mean, what’s a good approach?”

Cary Funk: “Yeah. Let me start. I think we talked so much about trust and how important trust is, and it really brings up the question, ‘What is trust?’ Why are we talking about this? Often, people define trust really as a relationship, it’s relational between two people, or in this case between two groups, between a public and a group of scientists or the institutions and people involved in science. So that’s really important to keep in mind, because like any relationship, it needs to be nurtured, or if there’s been issues in trust, mistrust, you need to be addressing that.

“So that’s the first kind of takeaway I would just underscore, is how it needs that kind of attention and that what you need to do is really think about, we talked earlier about people in communities can often be bridges to where there are gaps, where there’s more mistrust, distrust or ambivalence around science. You can use community members to help be bridges to understanding those different points of view, and of course you’re searching for shared values and shared understanding as you move forward.”

Richard Gallagher: “What specific advice would you give to people that are participating in this event who might have friends or relatives or neighbors who are implacably opposed to masks or vaccinations? What’s a good way to go about making this science’s case, you think?

Harvey Fineberg: “Well, I’ll start. I think you begin with evidence if you can. But evidence has to be evidence of both the head and the heart. I think what scientists are often convinced by, and what they attend to, are data that are gathered in systematic, organized ways that make for fair comparisons in a usual trial that’s in a randomized, double-masked way, so that you can get a fair comparison of whether something that you’re using makes a difference such as a vaccine, and then you can look at that evidence. But what I feel often persuades individuals are stories, anecdotes, experiences.

“If I were mounting this effort to try to reach my friends or family members, whether it’s about accepting a vaccine or using a mask or maintaining social distance, I would try to use a combination of evidence based on studies plus stories and individual experiences that help reinforce the key messages. I think it takes both sides to be relatively persuasive.”

Richard Gallagher: “We just got a related question from Tracy. She says, ‘There’s a whole field of health communication that focuses on how to communicate messages to the public in ways that they’ll understand and will impact their behavior. Many scientists and politicians do not have training in these methods. Should this training be required?’”

Harvey Fineberg: “It should be available. In the public health field, it’s pretty well-established what you need in order to have effective communication at least by many historic examples. You need to be clear, you need to be consistent, you need to be accurate, you need to be timely, you get the information out first, and you need over time to repeat the message. So, those basic principles are easy to say, they’re hard to put into practice. Learning how to be a more effective communicator isn’t necessarily a requirement for every scientist.

“As Cary pointed out, there are also important, if you will, intermediaries, communicators between the worlds of the scientist and the public who can do a very effective job in augmenting scientific understanding. So I’d love to see those lessons more widely available and more regularly used by scientists, but I wouldn’t say it should be required of all scientists.”

Cary Funk: “Yeah. There’s another angle to this conversation too. This isn’t really a one-way street. You can think again about, what can the scientific community do to foster trust in its work? One of the things that seems to come up again and again does have to do with kind of openness, transparency and accountability. When you look at kind of the dimensions of trust that people hold, there’s more skepticism, or mistrust, if you will, but it’s kind of more wariness on the part of the public when they’re thinking about issues of scientific integrity and the extent to which scientists will admit that they have conflicts of interest or admit that they’ve made a mistake or hold scientists accountable when there has been an error such as, or really mishandling of something. So that’s another angle in terms of what the scientific community can do to help promote its work.”

Harvey Fineberg: “I really agree and reinforce Cary’s critical points. The scientific community itself, to be trusted, needs to be trustworthy. And that means practicing science at the highest standards of integrity, of honesty, of transparency. It’s a reason why, and this should be universally taught to scientists, the principles of good scientific practice and care in the conduct of science so that it’s conducted at the highest standards of integrity, of clarity, of honesty. These are critical factors over time of building and maintaining trust in science.”

Richard Gallagher: “Let me pick up on that, Harvey. This is a little bit inside-baseball, but I think it’s an interesting question. What do you think about the publication of pre-prints and things being widely available in advance of peer review? The questioner says that we’ve witnessed several cases, including authoritative ones, of papers being published on pre-print servers and then withdrawn during the last year. Do you think that undermines public confidence, and how would weigh that up against the importance of making information available quickly?”

Harvey Fineberg: “I think this is a really critical question for the scientific community and the policy community who want to utilize science. The pre-print availability has great advantages and also, as you’re pointing out, some risks. My personal view is that on balance, it is very advantageous, especially in an environment of crisis like the Covid pandemic, to have early access to new information, new studies, new results, that could have an important bearing on the care of individuals, the protection of the public, the adoption of new policies.

“The key is that we have to interpret and view with a proper eye of skepticism preliminary reports, recognizing that they have not gone through review, that they are not definitive. And frankly, even studies that have gone through peer review can also be overturned by later information or new knowledge as well. So the degree of confidence in evidence is at a higher level of skepticism in the pre-print space but still ought to be viewed with the degree of care even in the fully published space. And over time, the critical thing is that evidence can accumulate that can reinforce understanding of what is in fact true of nature.

“And that’s the way science progresses. It over time continues to demonstrate the things that are not accurate and therefore point the direction to those things that remain that are likely to be the truth about nature. So I’m in favor of pre-prints, I think they’ve been really valuable in the Covid space, but they have to be interpreted and viewed with the correct understanding and skepticism.”

Richard Gallagher: “Cary, you’ve brought out this issue that people’s sense of control really matters when they’re considering taking on science advice, but I got a question here from George Kaplan. He says, ‘Smoking rates are low, seatbelt usage is high, few people play with mercury. Regulatory actions have played a role in all of these. What is the role of straight regulatory action in this pandemic?’”

Harvey Fineberg: “Cary, you could start.”

Cary Funk: “I mean, of course I talk public opinion and what people think the role should be, and of course we do see pretty wide divides in terms of how the outbreak is being handled and whether or not more restrictions are necessary, whether the restrictions we have in place are necessary, and the urgency around which we should be pushing the vaccine and the extent to which that will actually help address economic issues. So that’s where I come from and what I’m seeing is Americans quite divided on this, partly along party lines, but really it’s more fundamentally around the extent to which you see the outbreak as a major public health threat, as a crisis in a way.

“There is a sizeable share of Americans who see it as a minor threat or not even a threat, and they are more likely to say that there’s too many restrictions and really disagree with others about how we’re handling this.”

Harvey Fineberg: “This is a very tricky problem. For the welfare of the public, you can’t always depend on individual choice and action to provide the collective protection that is needed to save lives and to prevent needless illness. And it’s a trade-off, because the evidence about the importance of taking the step needs to be there, the implications of failing to take the steps need to be documented, and the policies need to be implemented in a way that’s even-handed and fair, and viewed as such by the public. But for example, your independent rights do not extend to getting on a bus and, by refusing to wear a face mask, putting at risk others who are taking advantage of the same public conveyance.

“So, certain of these measures are really important as regulatory standards that we all accept even when we individually may not appreciate the full reason for it. But the evidence about the importance for public health, being what it is, leads to the justification for those regulatory measures.

“Now, take a question like individual vaccination. We do have policies, for example, for children entering school, that they must be immunized. That’s for the protection of all the children as well as for their teachers and workers at school. So we do have instances and occasions where we require public health actions based on the risk and needs of the larger community. And frankly, that’s a very important resource for protecting the public health at states and in our communities as well.”

Richard Gallagher: “Just to close out on this, Jayesh from the UK says, ‘In the end, does trust in science just devolve into trust in institutions? Is it really just tracking trust in what people think about universities, what they think about the pharmaceutical industry, and what they think about the government?’”

Cary Funk: “That’s a great question. I mean, I think there’s two points. One is that people’s trust in institutions do vary across those institutions. What was noteworthy about the uptick in public trust, or American’s public trust, in scientists is that it stands apart from their trust in other groups and institutions which has been mostly flat. So, compared with other groups, more Americans have a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the best interest of the public than any of, I think, probably seven or eight other groups and institutions. The closest followed by would be trust in the military.

“We’ve been tracking public trust in different groups and institutions over time and we don’t see this kind of uptick across the board. The second point, maybe you didn’t make it, but let’s just go here again, is to think about trust as having multiple facets or dimensions. So, sometimes people talk about trust in scientists to do a good job as kind of their competence, trust in scientists to care about you as kind of their warmth or empathy for who you are and what you’re experiencing, trust in the integrity of their information could be another way to think about it, and then as we were talking before, kind of trust in the integrity of their practice and kind of the ways in which they go about their work. So there’s different ways to think about the elements of trust.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Cary’s point to me is so important because understanding what engenders trust apart from the factual accuracy of your message is really an important lesson for scientists to absorb and understand. Too often, I think those of us involved in biomedicine or public health or science essentially work from the premise the message carries the day, and it doesn’t matter who conveys it, how it is conveyed, the trappings of conveyance. It’s all about the core message. What Cary is so beautifully describing is it’s not only about the core message — it’s how it is conveyed, by whom, under what circumstances, with what levels of empathy and caring, and these all make a real difference to public acceptance of the core message.”

Richard Gallagher: “So, to take a science-centric viewpoint of all of this, where do you think that the pandemic will leave the research enterprise? Do you think that will be both from public support, for the potential for funding for science, for how it attracts people into science? What do you think will be the lasting impact of the pandemic on how science has done and how it’s viewed?”

Cary Funk: “This is a really hard question because we don’t actually have a crystal ball, but we can talk about kind of what the questions are and what we’re looking for as we go down the road. One is certainly whether there’ll be ongoing change in how people think about science because of this. Right now, science is very tightly connected with the coronavirus outbreak, but over time, maybe 10 years from now, that should loosen a little bit, or alternatively will it mean that we start to really associate science with the pandemic and the handling of the pandemic with public health measures in general? So that’s an open question.

“I think the other part, more immediately, the open questions are kind of how this pandemic is evolving. It’s evolving rapidly, more people are getting a vaccine as we speak, and as that share goes up, the nature of the public health concerns are going to keep shifting or potentially as scientists are learning more about new variants, there’ll be new information. So there’s still a lot that we’re looking for in terms of ongoing shifts.”

Harvey Fineberg: “One thing that I would add is, when you think about the incredible scientific achievements that have emerged during the coronavirus pandemic, most especially around the rapidity of new vaccine development, these did not begin as scientific projects when the first case occurred. They rest on a foundation of basic science understanding and research that has gone on literally for decades. It was only because of that prior investment in basic biological and other sciences that it was possible to convert so rapidly the available scientific knowledge, expertise and capacity toward the solution of this immediate crisis.

“So one lesson that I hope will come away from the Covid-19 experience is the importance of ongoing investment in basic science that enables us to respond as needed to imminent crises. And that is a very important policy lesson from the Covid experience to date.”

Cary Funk: “We could just add one more idea on there, which is to also pay attention to the ways in which that urgency can help boost interest in pursuing STEM education and STEM career paths for the younger generation. So that’s another thing to kind of keep your eye on.”

Harvey Fineberg: “It’d be a great benefit if every young child who has the potential interest now has a stimulated interest to pursue something related to science, math, technology, engineering. It would be fabulous. And why not? Because there are plenty of heroes to emulate coming out of the science of the Covid-19 experience.”

Richard Gallagher: “Do you think that there should be a push not just in education, but more generally to help people to understand the science process, the burden of proof, the experimental procedures, and so on, so that when we face future challenges it would all be seen in the context of a completely new set of science issues, that people have some understanding of how scientific information is generated? Is that something that is desirable and achievable, do you think?”

Harvey Fineberg: “I believe it’s both not only desirable, I think it’s essential, and I am confident it is increasingly achievable in the sense that more and more people can come to appreciate, understand, and engage in science.

“Part of the importance of the public engagement in science movement, the ability of everyone to be a scientist, to take advantage of observations of nature, to collaborate with others on the web and in schools and in science centers and museums of science and communities, all of these programs that enhance especially young people’s exposure and appreciation of what science means and what it does, these are important not only because it may stimulate as we were describing interest in a career in science, but also because it will help undergird public appreciation and support for the scientific enterprise, which is the fundamental engine of progress today in society.

“And so I believe that public engagement, communication about science, learning about the things that science and scientists can do, whether it’s seeing the new Mars landing or appreciating the new Covid vaccine or any of the myriad other ways that science enhances our imaginations and our daily lives, these are the things that I believe can help enhance public understanding, widen the base of support for science, and encourage more young people to pursue their dreams in science, and especially young women and minorities where the opportunity is relatively untapped.

“Every time we act out of any predisposition of prejudice or other reason that’s irrelevant to suppress interest in science, we are shortchanging ourselves as a society, we’re shortchanging the opportunity for brilliance to emerge from every corner of society. And I hope that’s also a lesson that we can take and reinforce out of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Richard Gallagher: “I’m going to ask you one last question. This has been an appalling period for the world, essentially — many deaths, illness, economic problems, and so on. And we’re told to expect more of the same as climate becomes less predictable and impacts every aspect of our life. What do you draw personally from the experience that you’ve had in the last year? How would you compare it to previous periods in your research career? Cary, for instance, covering politics. Harvey, I know you wrote a book about the swine flu outbreak of 1976. How does this stack up in terms of an important event in your careers? And as you look ahead, do you feel optimistic about what science can do to keep things on the straight and narrow, or has it set your hair on fire?”

Cary Funk: “OK. That’s a lot for just one closing question to just tell the whole world everything. I mean, I’ve been studying people’s views about science issues for probably a good couple of decades and there’s a lot I don’t know about all of it. And I suppose that’s part of what drives me, is I’m very interested in what people think and where those attitudes come from and how that connects with their behavior. And science is so vast, right? That there’s always more to learn and more to understand about how do people make sense of that. So over time — my background is as a social scientist, and over time — I’ve integrated what I learned about political divisions, about religious divisions, about race and ethnicity, about social class and so on.

“So it’s just all relevant to how people think about science and how they experience science, how they engage in science. What’s happened with the pandemic of course is that scientists and their work have been in the spotlight to a degree we really haven’t seen for decades. And this is part of what’s different here, is that science is increasingly part of the public discourse. In kind of decades past, it was a little more just among those who were following, as we say, inside-baseball colloquially, we say. Among the scientific community, among policymakers, there was a conversation, but now you’re seeing a broader conversation about science and that’s really important.”

Harvey Fineberg: “One lesson that I take away, Richard, is to focus on the things that we have within our control to influence and to change. And whether we’re talking about a current crisis like Covid or the emerging infectious diseases more broadly, or whether we’re talking about a problem that is so profound and long and enduring as climate disruption or any of the other myriad issues that affect our society, understanding through science where we can effectively intervene and then taking advantage of the lessons of communication to build public understanding and support for the actions that are so necessary, that to me is the big takeaway over time from this Covid-19 pandemic. Let’s focus on the things we can influence, let’s learn through science what to do, and let’s mobilize the political will to get it done.”

Richard Gallagher: “Great. Thank you very much. Cary and Harvey, I want to acknowledge your fabulous contributions to these questions on public understanding of science and particularly in the current pandemic, and to just thank you very much for a hugely interesting discussion over the last hour.”

Cary Funk: “Thank you so much.”

Richard Gallagher: “And I wish you and everyone a great day, and be safe and healthy.”

Harvey Fineberg: “Thank you, Richard and Cary. It’s always a pleasure to be with you.”

Cary Funk: “Same here. Thank you so much.”