As the pandemic enters its third year, the United States is facing a pathogen as dangerous as any airborne microbe: declining confidence in science itself.
This diminishing trust is evident across the political spectrum. Since early 2020, the share of Republicans who express confidence in scientists has plummeted more than 20 points to 63 percent. Among Democrats, just 43 percent now say they have a “great deal” of confidence in science — a nearly 10 percent drop.
Philanthropists who care about science and its ability to improve people’s lives should take these trends seriously. To create lasting public confidence in science, grant makers must help address the sources of mistrust, including the lack of diverse perspectives and connection to the communities science seeks to serve.
While the pandemic elevated these feelings of distrust, science has long had trust problems among certain populations and on specific issues — often stemming from a failure to live up to society’s most basic values.
Black Americans, for example, have historically held far lower levels of confidence in medical scientists than white Americans. This is the result of a tragic legacy of denying care to communities of color and subjecting Black people to brutal medical experiments in the name of scientific discovery.
This legacy persists to this day as bias in scientific methodologies and care continues to drive disparate outcomes along race and gender lines. For example, biases embedded in a diagnostic algorithm for kidney disease may have imperiled up to 1 million Black adults in the United States. Biased measures in cardiovascular disease have resulted in underdiagnosis of women suffering from heart attacks. And in Native American communities, life expectancy fell from nearly 72 years in 2019 to 65 in 2021, a stunning decrease reflecting how Covid-19 capitalized on centuries of divestment in tribal health care.
Other instances of mistrust in science also require a response even if they lack the equivalent moral weight. Uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine is so politicized that Republican Party identification is now a predictor of a person’s likelihood of dying from the coronavirus. But dismissing people because they watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News only confirms their suspicion that science is politically motivated.
A long-term decline in confidence in science could be catastrophic, undermining public and private funding and even the desirability of scientific careers. Confronting these problems requires recognizing both the strengths and the limitations of science.
The power of science rests in its ability to tell us something verifiable about our universe, our world, and ourselves that is independent of how we think and feel. The problem with this view is that no human institution, including science, is infallible.
Scientists can make mistakes in how they ask a question, choose a sample, interpret a response, or prescribe a solution. Some of these mistakes arise from conscious and unconscious biases. Others are the result of structural factors beyond the control of an individual scientist, such as limited time and imperfect tools.
The answer is not to pretend that science is exempt from human imperfection, but to acknowledge that imperfection and commit to building something better. Philanthropy can serve the field well by holding up a mirror to this reality and fueling approaches to improve science in three critical areas.
Help ensure science represents everyone. A more diverse field is not only more just, but it also elevates the quality and uses of science. Different perspectives can uncover biases invisible to a homogenous group and make sure the results of scientific studies reflect all of society.
Effective philanthropic interventions are already achieving greater diversity in the scientific ranks. Examples include a range of scholarship and mentoring programs for students of color interested in entering or progressing in science fields, such as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Indigenous Graduate Partnership.
Scientific data, which too often underrepresents or fails to disaggregate marginalized groups, must also better reflect human diversity. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has responded by convening a national commission to examine and transform how public-health data is collected and has pledged $50 million to create a more equitable system free of racial and structural barriers.
Fortunately, diversity efforts like these are gaining momentum. The two foundations we lead — the Doris Duke Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation — joined nearly 100 other philanthropies, universities, companies, and community organizations in December to launch the STEMM Opportunity Alliance at a White House summit. It is the first coordinated national effort across multiple fields aimed at closing the race and gender opportunity gap in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine — with the goal of achieving STEMM equity by 2050.
Make science a publicly accessible tool for improving communities. Philanthropy can support the ability of local communities to integrate science into efforts to solve problems and advance their priorities. For example, the community science organization Public Lab, supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and others, brings together people with different expertise to develop low-cost, open-source tools anyone can use to collect local environmental data, such as a trawler made from children’s tights and soda bottles that can detect microplastics in water.
Scientific research can also be conducted with public input. Social scientists, for example, are increasingly partnering with nonprofit organizations, government officials, and community members to help plan and lead research projects. This ensures that the perspectives of those affected by the study are present from the beginning of research design through the creation of evidence-based interventions. Our two foundations, along with several others, provide funding for partnerships of this kind — for example, a collaboration between hospital clinicians, a patient group, and a health-services researcher in Los Angeles to improve patient experience in emergency rooms.
Speak out about why the culture of science must change. The attitude that science is above the divisions of human societies is a fiction that serves no one. Science is part of society and its human systems. Scientific practice must acknowledge — and embrace — that reality.
A growing group of grant makers, including our foundations, is seeking to foster a culture of what we call “civic science.” The work of civic science is to build bridges across expertise, sectors, methods, and communities, recognizing that science alone cannot confront the nation’s most challenging problems.
This work includes funding the Civic Science Fellows program, which supports emerging leaders from diverse personal and professional backgrounds to develop projects focused on weaving science more deeply into society. One fellow, for example, is working with the Open Research Funders Group to help science donors develop more equitable and inclusive funding practices. Another fellow, based at the Harvard Kennedy School, is testing ways health care providers can more effectively communicate the importance of vaccines to people who strongly oppose them.
These approaches — increasing representation, connecting science to community, and changing the culture of science — share a commitment both to the goal of scientific objectivity and to confronting the reality that science is too often artificially narrow and exclusionary.
There are many reasons for the decline in confidence in science, some valid and others pernicious. But the good news is that confronting this reality affords a generational opportunity to improve science — to make it more equitable and inclusive while strengthening its ability to advance knowledge, inform civic action, and expand its impact and benefits. The first scientific revolution gave us a set of tools that transformed human potential. The next scientific revolution will ensure those tools better realize that potential for all of humanity.