Scientists want to build trust in science and technology. The alternative is too risky to contemplate

Image result for Scientists want to build trust in science and technology. The alternative is too risky to contemplateNew research shows that despite differences in their funding commitments, major political parties in Australia – the Coalition, Labor and the Greens – see science and technology as important aspects of our economy and future prosperity.

But that’s not enough.

It’s also crucial that the Australian public is able to have a say on priorities for scientific research and its applications. The social license of science depends on being able to engage with the public. Without this, scientists and other experts risk losing public trust.

This could have real implications for achieving the public good when it comes to emerging disruptive technologies (like robotics and AI), the environment (including climate change) and more.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently pointed to tensions between government, the public and scientists, saying “we sub-contract too much out to experts already”. So how can we build, and not erode, trust in Australia’s scientists and other experts?

We recently worked with scientists to distil priorities they think should be front and centre in building a trusting relationship between science and the public.

They say that improvements can be made in:

  • transparency
  • high ethical standards
  • two-way dialogue between scientists and the public.

A new charter

The social license for science is not a “set and forget” exercise. As disruptive technologies emerge, scientists need to re-engage the general public to understand changing expectations and views about science.

With election 2019 in mind, late in 2018 the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) called for a new charter to re-set the relationship between science and government, and to identify fresh ways for the general public to be involved in science.

Focusing on key areas highlighted by the AAS, we adapted existing research methods to gather survey responses from 174 respondents across the science and innovation sector, and collated over 700 priority statements.

A group of 18 scientists – both senior and early career researchers across science domains – then gathered in Canberra on April 18 to work through the survey findings, and identify priorities for re-freshing scientists’ social licence. For this workshop exercise, we did a first cut of analysis and grouped the statements for similarity.

The survey data indicate the majority of respondents believe science should be based on transparency, openness, and meaningful dialogue with society. They also believe the ethical pursuit of research and innovation is important. However, the majority feel that current institutional arrangements don’t support these aspirations.


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