Do Academics Still Trust Research?

A new report provides mixed advice to scientists and researchers looking to regain confidence in their work.

No matter where one falls politically, one must admit that the pandemic brought to the foreground the importance of scientific research. A new report from The Economist’s think-tank spinoff, Economist Impact, attempts to better understand how the pandemic affected this crucial field, with an emphasis on scientists’ confidence in currently-emerging findings.

Confidence in Research: Researchers in the Spotlight explores the attitudes of scientists, researchers, and scholars on “how the pandemic has affected the practice of undertaking and communicating research in the face of increased public scrutiny.” Though primarily based on a survey of over 3,000 researchers conducted from December 2021 to August 2022, the report also makes use of a literature review, six roundtable discussions, and qualitative interviews. Its intended purpose is to identify what it describes as “actionable insights and interventions for the research community.”

Building public trust would be easier if researchers and academics practiced a bit more humility.The report contains a few valuable insights but is laced with woke talking points. For example, the authors are quick to point to alleged funding inequalities and the “widening of pre-existing gaps between researchers in the Global South and Global North,” as well as between men and women and early- and mid-career scientists. To be sure, getting funding into the hands of researchers with good ideas is important: If there is any area where meritocracy should win out, it is research. Yet Economist Impact goes beyond merely noting this potential problem and lists it as the survey’s first “key finding.” The far more pertinent discovery that “public attention … may be leading researchers to adopt more careful research practices” is comparatively deemphasized.

Elsewhere, the report is on more solid ground. Economist Impact’s survey found that two of the factors most affecting researchers’ confidence are whether a particular set of findings has been peer-reviewed and whether a given study is correctly designed. Without these safeguards, poorly designed research can be published despite obvious flaws. In the age of social media, this potential for harm has increased significantly due to the quick dissemination of information that is now possible.

Another important finding from the report has to do with the lack of communications training for researchers who present directly to the public. By any measure, the pandemic increased the public’s attention to researchers, many of whom are now in a position to disseminate their ideas on social media. Here, the report’s usefulness is mixed. There is no reason not to “formalise communications training” for Ph.D. students, as Economist Impact recommends. However, it isn’t clear how such instruction would have prevented overeager scientists from pontificating on Twitter about mask-mandates, vaccine requirements, and other political questions from the Covid era.

The four main focuses of the report are addressing misinformation, building public trust, preparing researchers for a public-facing role, and tackling inequality. While these seem, overall, to be positive, a constant need to tackle inequality could easily overtake the more important need for accurate, well-designed scientific research, no matter its source. One wonders, too, if building public trust would be easier if scientists, researchers, scholars, and academics practiced a bit more humility. That advice is largely missing from Economist Impact’s report.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.