Researchers must better explain their findings and counter misinformation, survey suggests

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Dive Brief:

  • Roughly four out of five researchers said the pandemic increased the need for scientists and analysts to better explain their work to the public and to counter misinformation, according to a new report from academic publisher Elsevier.
  • Two-thirds of respondents said COVID-19 increased overall attention to research, but almost half said the public’s understanding of the research process has not improved.
  • Respondents also said they’re facing hostility, with 44% of U.S. researchers reporting that either they or a close colleague had received online abuse. Researchers in the U.S. were more likely to report online hostility than their counterparts from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and China.

Dive Insight:

These latest findings on how people think about academic research present another hit to higher ed’s reputation. Colleges are responsible for about half of the country’s basic research and about 10% to 15% of its research and development, according to the National Science Foundation.

The public already appears to be weighing the value of higher education, with a July poll finding that two-thirds of respondents said colleges fail to serve today’s students’ needs.

The Elsevier findings come on top of previous reports of waning public confidence in scientific research during the pandemic. In late 2021, just 29% of U.S. adults said they had a great deal of confidence that scientists would act in the public’s best interests, the Pew Research Center found. That’s down from 39% at the end of 2020.

Politics influence these views, with Democrats and left-leaning Independents reporting higher rates of confidence in scientists’ motives than Republicans and right-leaning Independents.

U.S. researchers are keenly aware of this divide, according to Elsevier’s new research, done in collaboration with Economist Impact, a policy research and public relations firm. A majority of respondents, 79%, expressed concern about the politicization of research.

Survey respondents also expressed concerns about complex research being oversimplified and the public not understanding how research is conducted. Over two in five researchers said they were hopeful the increased public attention will help them influence policy.

“In addition to their regular research activities, researchers now also work increasingly to combat false and misleading information as well as online abuse, and they want support to do so,” said Ann Gabriel, senior vice president of global strategic networks at Elsevier, in a statement.

A majority of researchers, 57%, said they wanted communications training, and 59% said they wanted more opportunities to engage with policymakers.

Social media remains a sticking point for scientists.

While half of researchers said they felt confident explaining research methods publicly, only 13% had similar levels of confidence explaining them on social media. And more than a third, 36%, said they are less likely to share their opinions on social media now than before the pandemic.

For this report, researchers surveyed 290 U.S. researchers at varying stages of their careers between December 2021 and August 2022.


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