It isn't what you know, it's what you think you know

Survey of over 2000 adults in the UK identifies potential pitfalls of science communication.

A recent survey of over 2000 British adults finds that trust in genetics is high, that through the pandemic trust in genetics has gone up considerably, and that only very few people want to hear less about the science.

The pandemic has gone hand-in-hand with a much-increased public profile of science, genetics in particular.  Be it the prominence of PCR testing or the development of vaccines, genetics has never been far away.  Given this, researchers from the Universities of Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and Aberdeen wanted to know what the public felt about genetics and whether this new exposure of the science has made a difference. 

To address this, they commissioned a survey of over 2000 randomly selected British adults through public polling company Kantar Public. Dr Cristina Fonseca, project coordinator for the Genetics Society (the funder’s of the project), noted that “having a representative random survey is really vital and allows us insight into the true diversity of opinions.” 

The results of the survey are published in journal PLOS Biology.

As a baseline they found that before the pandemic most people were trusting of genetics. Nearly half (45 percent) reported they trusted it to work for the societal good, while 18 percent said they did not and 37 percent were neutral. Only very few (1-2 percent) were strongly distrusting. 

When asked if their trust in genetics had gone up through the pandemic, many more said it had (16 percent) than those who reported that it had gone down (4 percent). The same increase in trust was not seen for sciences that were not involved in the pandemic but might be confused with genetics (e.g. geologists not geneticists). Trust in science more generally had strongly gone up with a third saying it had increased.

Not only has trust in science gone up, but people also want to hear about it.  Less than 10 percent thought that there is too much coverage of the science in the media, while 44 percent reported that they want to hear more about it.

Professor Jonathan Pettitt, co-lead from the University of Aberdeen noted: “It is hard to see any upsides to the pandemic but perhaps this is one?  We never knew that so many people wanted to hear more from scientists.”

Co-lead Professor Laurence Hurst of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath commented:"This is really important to know – scientists have a tendency to stick in their labs, but the public not only trust us, this trust has gone up and they want to hear from us about our work.” 

Prof Anne Ferguson-Smith, President of the Genetics Society and Professor in the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University reinforced this: “These results really challenge us to double our efforts. We need to rise to the new opportunity and the challenge created by the outcomes of this survey ”.

However, co-lead Prof Alison Woollard of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, cautioned: “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 percent 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.