The COVID-19 pandemic saw the public profile of science increase to an unprecedented level. This was particularly true for genetics, thanks to the prominence of PCR testing and the development of COVID-19 vaccines. But did this extraordinary level of coverage lead to any long-term changes in how people feel about science and genetics?
In a study funded by the Genetics Society, researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, and UCL commissioned a survey of over 2000 randomly selected British adults through the public polling company Kantar Public. The results have been published this week as a report ‘COVID-19 and the Public Perception of Genetics.’
- As a baseline, most people were trusting of genetic technologies before the pandemic. Nearly half (45%) reported they trusted these to work for the societal good. 37% were neutral on this question, while 18% said they did not, and only very few (1-2%) were strongly distrusting.
- More than a third of the respondents said that their trust in science increased during the pandemic.
- In particular, attitudes to genetics have become more positive. When asked if their trust in genetics had gone up during the pandemic, four times more people said their trust had increased than those who reported that it had gone down.
- As a control, the same increase in trust was not seen for sciences that were not involved in the pandemic (for instance geology).
- Nearly half (44%) of the UK public would like to hear more about science in the media. In contrast, less than 10% thought that there is too much coverage of the science in the media.
Despite the positive news, Professor Alison Woollard (Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford), a co-author on the study, warned that scientists should not be complacent. ‘We think we have established the limits of science communication. Despite all the talk of PCR over the last many months, we found that 30% hadn’t heard the term or knew it was a tool for testing for the virus. It is hard to see how any science can have more exposure than PCR has had. We need to be realistic and understand that, no matter what, we will never reach everyone. For informing people about things like vaccines this is important to know.’
The survey also investigated how well people who have strong attitudes towards science actually understand it. Previous studies indicate that individuals that are negative towards science tend to have relatively low textbook knowledge but strong self-belief in their understanding.
With this insight as a foundation, the team sought to find out whether high self-belief underpinned all strong attitudes. Survey participants were asked to rate their understanding of scientific terms, and the extent to which they agreed/disagreed with attitudinal statements such as “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are greatly exaggerated.” Their textbook knowledge of science was also tested using true/false questions.
- People with extreme attitudes towards science – both strongly supportive and strongly anti-science – have very high self-belief in their own understanding, while those with neutral attitudes do not.
- People with the most negative attitudes towards science tend also not to have high textbook knowledge.
- By contrast, those who are more accepting of science both believe they understand it and scored well on the textbook fact (true/false) questions.
According to the research team, these results make sense: to hold a strong opinion you need to firmly believe in the correctness of your understanding of the basic facts.
Professor Woollard added: ‘Traditionally, it was thought that what mattered most for scientific literacy was increasing scientific knowledge. Therefore, science communication focused on passing information from scientists to the public., These results, however, suggest that this approach may not be successful and may in some cases backfire. Working to address the discrepancies between what people know and what they believe they know may be a better strategy.’
A descriptive report with all the answers from the questionnaire is now available on the Genetics Society website, along with the technical report containing details on the panel sample and questionnaire.
A research paper “People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified” has been published in PLOS Biology.
The Genetics Society, established 1919, is one of the world’s oldest societies devoted to the study of genetics and to the public understanding of genetics. It is an independent and unaffiliated charity.