Rathenau: citizens wary of government-commissioned research

Dutch people tend to trust scientific research less when it is commissioned by the government. Photo: Pixabay

Every three years, the Rathenau Institute conducts a survey to verify how much the Dutch population trusts science. Time and again, the study shows that the level of confidence is high. The surveys also reveal, however, that people have reservations about research commissioned by third parties such as the government.

Why? The Rathenau Institute decided to get to the bottom of it. After all, people do expect that very same government to base its policy on scientific knowledge and use research findings to solve issues like the coronavirus pandemic.

Critical citizens
Rathenau conducted extensive interviews (link in Dutch) with 53 respondents divided over nine focus groups. Most groups were composed of different types of people, based on characteristics such as age, gender and level of education. But there were also separate groups made up entirely of young adults and "critical citizens" (people involved in action groups and other organisations that oppose governmental policies).

One thing all respondents had in common was that their trust is conditional. They strongly value independence, for instance. They don’t mind it if the government provides input to researchers, but it should not exert any pressure whatsoever on scientists to adjust their findings. By the same token, the respondents believe that scientists should leave policymaking to the politicians.

Financial independence is also seen as an important prerequisite. Some fear that "he who controls the purse strings makes the rules". In the group of critical citizens, it was suggested that universities should receive more fixed research funding, “so that they are less susceptible to government interference”.

Easy to understand
Transparency is another key factor. The respondents believe that scientists should provide clear explanations of their research, preferably in a language that's easy to understand. They don’t want to feel like scientists are “withholding, concealing or distorting” information. When it comes to government-commissioned research, it is even more crucial that researchers are able to publish the results of their work “uncensored and without any restrictions”.

But, as the group of young adults points out, it is also vital that people know where to find scientific information – and that they’re able to understand it. They suggest that children across all levels of education should be taught about science.

Conflicting reports in the media don’t make it any easier for people to understand scientific developments either, the respondents indicate, citing the confusion at the beginning of the pandemic about the effectiveness of face masks as an example. Such discussions, they say, should not be held “in the public arena”.

The interviews also highlighted that people are not always rational. In assessing the reliability of a study, they are also guided by their intuition and by previous – sometimes negative – experiences with science. That’s why it may be useful to involve people from outside the academic community in scientific research more frequently, the study concludes.