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CSIRO CEO Doug Hilton on trust & science

Doug Hilton AO, We need science, and we need to defend it from attack, CSIRO, April 2024

Trust in science: Australia isn’t as polarised as the US, but we can’t afford to be complacent.

If we lose trust in climate and environmental scientists, in meteorologists, in renewable energy innovators, we will leave future generations with a mess from which humanity may never recover. ©  Anna Tarazevich / Pexels.

Recent criticism of science in some quarters has distracted from an important truth: overwhelmingly, the Australian public has confidence in science, and recognises the intrinsic value of scientists.

Nine in 10 Australians think science and scientists are crucial to solving Australia’s biggest future challenges. Importantly, four in five Australians also say they want to hear more from scientists about their work.

This enormous trust in science is built on the long and laudable track record science has of advancing national interests and creating benefits for our country.

Historically, Australia has been ahead of the curve with its scientific research and technological advancement.

From improving healthcare to protecting our environment, from fostering economic resilience to addressing global challenges like pandemics and climate change, scientific research has been the catalyst for progress, prosperity and ultimately a better future for all Australians.

Our science eco-system is also thriving.

As a country, we have excellent universities and world-class research facilities. Our population is, by and large, well educated, and tertiary educated Australians are most trusting of science.

An example of why that’s important is that Australia’s public’s trust in vaccine science remains high despite the best efforts of vocal fringe groups, like those who made headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

But not for a moment can we take any of this for granted.

This is an era shaped by misinformation and conspiracy theories, a time where calculated efforts are made to erode public confidence in the critical pillars of civil society including scientific organisations, independent electoral commissions, the courts and the public service.

This is a period where the nuanced exchange of ideas is too-often overshadowed by polarised narratives, a time when distrust pervades public discourse.

We have seen this quite strikingly in the US, where there has been a continued decline in public trust in scientists in recent years, and the share of Americans who say science has had a mostly positive effect on society has fallen.

A recent example of this dynamic in play is in Florida, which has been tackling a measles outbreak but the state’s surgeon general – a COVID-19 vaccine sceptic – has been described as ignoring medical science to stop it.

The subsequent exchanges on the issue on social media – including many troubling and often patently false anti-science conspiracy theories – are typically caustic and the voices supporting the best, most medically-sound course of action are lost in the sadly familiar claim-counter-claim world where the earth is flat, 5G networks cause COVID, and billionaires are microchipping humans via vaccines!

It would almost be darkly funny if it wasn’t so serious.

The very foundation of trust in science, upon which our ability to tackle the grand challenges that confront us, is being eroded. If that continues, then with it goes many of our reasons for hope and optimism.

The scientific process depends on an open and transparent discussion of data, models, methods and conclusions.

That means scientific debate is central to scientific progress. In contrast, distortion, disparagement, and rejection of the scientific process to justify a particular policy position, rather than discussing the merits of policies themselves, is corrosive and even dangerous.

There is a critical difference between debating the merits of a policy direction based on established facts and seeking to undermine those facts to suit a particular position.

Disparaging science, scientists and scientific organisations creates an incredibly dangerous environment where the community distrusts high-quality advice. As a community, we must demand our policy makers debate the policy without denigrating the science and when that happens, it must always be seen as a red line, and called out.

So much depends on community trust in science.

It provides the compass with which we will best be able to navigate humanity’s greatest challenges. Conversely, the consequences of undermining community trust in science can be catastrophic: a loss of public confidence in science at a time when we need it the most.

That is not a theoretical statement or hyperbole – confidence in science matters profoundly, as we saw in countries that distrusted infectious disease research and epidemiology during the COVID pandemic. People died, in their millions, more often the most vulnerable in the community.

Trust in science will also define our future.

As a nation, as a global community, if we lose trust in climate and environmental scientists, in meteorologists, in renewable energy innovators, we will leave future generations with a mess from which humanity may never recover.

As a community we are now making – or will soon make – enormously important decisions about everything from how we continue to respond: to climate change and the loss of biodiversity, to how we best use AI and quantum computing, to how we respond to the next pandemic.

Those decisions depend on public attitudes. That means it’s critically important the community understands why they can have confidence in science and its methods, and how it’s different from religion or opinion or social media or politics.

Part of meeting this challenge sits with scientists.

We need to get better at ‘lifting the bonnet’ on science and explaining how the engine works.

We need to continue to foster public understanding of the scientific process and nourishing a conversation around how knowledge is built systematically over time.

We need to explain how science is a system of building knowledge gained through observation and experimentation, where ideas are subjected to rigorous and transparent scrutiny, discussion, debate, and are open to further examination.

We need to demonstrate how conclusions are often reviewed and revised, especially as new data comes to hand and evidence builds so it’s the rigour and transparency in a process built around documenting, testing, contesting, and reviewing that underpins trust in science.

As scientists and as a community, we need to talk more about that. Because demystifying science and promoting transparency, understanding and open debate is the best way not just to protect community trust in science, but to build it.

And with the formidable challenges of the 21st century confronting us we need to do that now, more than ever.