Global distrust in innovation and those who manage and deliver it is growing

Mark Lowey
January 31, 2024

There is a growing rift between innovation and society that has become “the new factor” causing further polarization within countries, according to a new report on trust and innovation worldwide.

By a nearly two-to-one margin, respondents to a global survey feel innovation is being poorly managed, with this feeling cutting across age groups, income levels and gender. In both developed and developing countries, people are more likely to say innovation is poorly managed rather than well managed, the annual 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer global report found. The report, by the Edelman Trust Institute, looked at trust in innovation by society.

“Rapid innovation offers the promise of a new era of prosperity, but instead risks exacerbating trust issues, leading to further societal instability and political polarization,” according to Edelman, a Chicago-headquartered global communications firm with offices in Canada.

“While people agree that scientists are essential to the acceptance of innovation, many are concerned that politics has too much influence on science. This perception is contributing to the decline of trust in the institutions responsible for steering us through change and towards a more prosperous future.”

The Edelman Trust Barometer reports on 28 countries, with 32,000-plus respondents to the survey and 1,150-plus respondents per country.

Globally, government was seen by respondents as far less competent and ethical than business. Government is distrusted in 17 of the 28 countries surveyed. In Canada, 49 per cent of respondents trusted government, compared with 57 per cent who trusted business.

Forty-five per cent of respondents globally distrusted government leaders to “tell me the truth about new innovations and technologies.” Government leaders are more distrusted to tell the truth about innovation than scientists, or “someone like me [the respondent],” or CEOs, or journalists.

In Canada, 63 per cent of respondents felt government regulators lack adequate understanding of emerging technologies to regulate them effectively.

More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of global respondents who said innovation is poorly managed believe society is changing too quickly and not in ways that benefit “people like me,” the survey found.

Business has the best opportunity to reverse this trend toward distrust because it is the most trusted institution globally, both in general and when it comes to introducing new innovations into society, according to the Trust Barometer. However, business must focus on explaining the impact of innovation and its net positive for society and not just investors.

“Innovation is accelerating and should be a growth enabler, but it will be stymied if business doesn’t pay as much attention to acceptance [of innovation] as it does research and development,” Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, said in a statement.

University of Waterloo's new network to examine why people mistrust science

Media remains the least trusted institution globally and is distrusted in 15 of 28 countries, according to the Trust Barometer. Only 39 per cent of respondents in the U.S. said they trust in media, compared with 51 per cent in Canada.  

Sixty-eight per cent of global respondents trust in search engines for general news and information, compared with 62 per cent for traditional media (such as newspapers, magazines, TV and radio), 51 per cent for owned media (any online property owned and completely controlled by a brand, such as blog or website), and 44 per cent for social media.

The rising trend of “fake news” came to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic as people turned to social media channels to read and distribute information that often fell far short of offering reliable information or verifiable data, Dr. Mary Wells, PhD (photo at right), dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, said in an op-ed published in Waterloo News.

Wells said she has launched the Trust in Research Undertaken in Science and Technology Scholarly Network (TRuST), alongside her inaugural TRuST co-directors UWaterloo colleagues, Nobel Laureate and physics professor Donna Strickland and Ashley Mehlenbacher, Canada Research Chair in Science, Health and Technology.

TRuST is the first multidisciplinary research network of its kind in Canada and aims to combat the growing trend of disinformation to better understand why some people deny, doubt or resist scientific findings and explanations, Wells said.

“We’re exploring how engineers, scientists and researchers can find ways of embedding trust into the technologies that they are currently building. We hope this can lead to further considerations of the intended and unintended consequences, of what those technologies can do.”

New pharmaceuticals must undergo rigorous study and clinical trials before they are brought to market, Wells noted. This measured approach could be adopted when considering introducing new technologies into the wild, she suggested. Before a company launches a new technological product into the marketplace, it could undergo a series of trials with a small group of people to identify any unintended issues that could be addressed before allowing expansion to more people.

Another approach could be for governments, in partnership with industry, non-profits and academia, to introduce a series of ethical standards that all technology companies will have to adhere to if they want to make their products available to the public.

Science losing its independence, survey respondents say 

Many respondents to this year’s Edelmen Trust Barometer survey believe that science is losing its independence to government, research funders and the political process.

Globally, 53 per cent of respondents are concerned government has too much influence on science. Fifty-nine per cent think government and organizations that fund research have too much influence on how science is done.

When people feel that innovation is poorly managed, they are more likely to say that the system is biased in favor of the rich than those who feel innovation is managed well (82 per cent versus 53 per cent).

Sixty per cent of respondents said government leaders are expected to lead on implementation of innovations, while 60 per cent said CEOs who deploy innovations are expected to lead. That compares with 77 per cent for scientists, 74 per cent for technical experts, and 60 per cent for academics and educators.

Along with the mass-class divide, the huge imbalance in trust between business and government, and the “infodemic” behind the decline in trust and increasing polarization, fear of innovation “has now become the fourth log on the populism fire,” Edelman said.

In Western democracies, resistance to innovation is political, where right-leaning individuals are far more likely than those on the left to reject innovations, the survey found. In Canada, for example, 37 per cent of respondents who are on the politically right side of the spectrum resist innovation, compared with 19 per cent who are politically left.

Fears of an information war are increasing

            Other key findings from this year’s Trust Barometer include:

  • Fear of an information war (61 per cent) jumped by six points from last year, the biggest increase among societal fears. The report also reveals an increase in the belief that societal leaders – including journalists (64 per cent), government leaders (63 per cent), and business leaders (61 per cent) – are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false.
  • Trust remains local with “My employer” (79 per cent trust among employees) once again the most trusted institution and trusted in every country surveyed aside from South Korea.
  • The Trust Barometer found huge gaps between trust in the businesses that make up industry sectors and associated industry innovations, including:
  • a 26-point gap between trust in businesses in the technology sector (76 per cent) versus trust in artificial intelligence (50 per cent)
  • a 23-point gap between trust in businesses in the health care sector (73 per cent) versus trust in gene-based medicine (50 per cent)
  • trust in businesses in the food and beverage sector (72 per cent) versus trust in GMO foods (32 per cent).
  • Over the last 10 years, trust has declined significantly in companies headquartered in the largest exporting nations. However, Canada is the most trusted for companies headquartered in foreign countries, as rated by respondents from outside each country. Sixty-six of those respondents trust companies headquartered in Canada, compared with second-place Germany (64 per cent) and third-placed Japan (61 per cent). Companies headquartered in China and India are the least trusted (each at 35 per cent).

Restoring trust in innovation

The Edelman Trust Barometer notes that restoring trust in the promise of innovation requires changing attitudes and taking action by all sectors in society, including:

  • Implementation as important as invention Mismanaged innovations are as likely to ignite backlash as to advance society. With breakthroughs like artificial intelligence, vaccines and green energy on the line, explaining the science and managing impacts are essential.
  • Business must partner to change – Business is most trusted to introduce innovation into society, with an emphasis on partnering with government. CEOs need to safeguard jobs and take a stand on emerging ethical concerns.
  • Science must integrate with society – Scientists are still trusted, but increasingly subject to public scrutiny. To build trust in expert recommendations, explain the research, engage in dialogue and harness peer voices as advocates.
  • Give me control over my future – When people feel in control over how innovations affect their lives, they are more likely to embrace them, not resist them. Listen for concerns, be open to questions.

“Against the backdrop of the biggest global election year in history with more than 50 elections slated to take place, trust is under siege from a number of forces,” said Kirsty Graham, president, global practices and sectors at Edelman.

“Concern over the impacts of innovation and those driving it have led to greater suspicion of economic and political systems,” she said. “Institutions must work together to help address these concerns to allow a pathway for continued innovation and progress.”

Noted Wells at the University of Waterloo in her op-ed: “We have already seen how the risks of avoiding this direct approach have created an environment of distrust toward researchers, scientists and policymakers in the post-pandemic period. Tackling this challenge now is critical to ensure that future ideas and technological advances don’t suffer a similar fate.”

Watch a You Tube video on Trust in Research Undertaken in Science and Technology, the new network established at the University of Waterloo.


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