For the public in Sweden, 2015 was a year full of scientific ups and downs, from the well-received Stephen Hawkins' public lecture in Stockholm to Macchiarini's controversial studies which eventually led to a paper retraction and the researcher’s dismissal from Karolinska Institute. Despite this, the first survey conducted in September/October 2015 showed the public's trust keeps following an upward trend seen in the past few years, reaching an extraordinaire 84% of the population. This is compared to only 74% in the previous year and an all-time low in 2010, with values just above 60%.
The vast majority of the public also believes it's important for them to be involved in science and more than half would like to do so themselves. Science is mostly seen not only as a way to make life better, from medical developments to introducing eco-friendly energy sources, but also as an attractive career to follow. In addition, newspapers and television continue to be the main way the public find out about the latest scientific discoveries or cases of malpractice, but most people say they prefer to put their trust in specialised science writers rather than those reporting general news.
Starting in 2002, this was the 14th annual survey conducted by VA (Public & Science), a Swedish non-profit organisation promoting communication between researchers and the public. Members include universities, research centres and other organisations. The survey was conducted by phone interviews with around 1000 participants aged from 16 to 74.
The survey is usually conducted once a year, but a few months later and after several instalments in the media covering Paolo Macchiarini's rise and fall, VA decided it was time to undertake a second poll to determine whether public trust had been affected by these issues. It turned out trust still remained high despite all the negative media and 86% of the population confirmed a "very high" or "fairly high" trust in scientists. It can be argued that it was exactly the fact that wrongdoers got caught and punished - an indication the system works - that maintained the high levels of trust.
However, there was a slight shift from "very high" to "fairly high" compared to the previous survey. Given these results, it would be easy to blame the media for their ability to influence the public's perception. In fact, about 25% of participants in the survey said their trust had dropped as a result of something they'd read or seen in the news, and out of 373 positive responses, 271 could be directly linked to the Macchiarini case.
Nevertheless, it is VA's belief that the media coverage is essential to spread science news. “Paradoxically, the reason that the overall level of trust in researchers has not fallen more is the extensive media coverage itself. The mass media has a crucial role to play, as conveyors of information, investigators and as a forum for debate,” said Cissi Billgren Askwall, VA's Secretary General, in a recent press release.
As for future results, it is difficult to say what's going to happen. "I do not think values will keep increasing indefinitely. We do hope of course that values will stay at these levels, or even go up a bit, but we do not think that a level of 100 percent would be worth striving for", says VA spokesperson Maria Lindholm. "A critical mindset is very valuable in a scientifically literate population".