Growing mistrust for science requires strong action from the government

By Mark Mann

Managing Editor, RE$EARCH MONEY

On March 25, in the relatively early days of the global onslaught of the novel coronavirus, I wrote that “the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a great moment for public acceptance and support of science.” I was wrong. Anti-science conspiracies and attitudes are waxing, not waning.

If anything, COVID-19 has prompted a surge in skepticism for institutional science, sometimes leading to conflict. In the three months after the WHO’s pandemic declaration, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) identified more than 4,000 episodes of violence associated with COVID-19-related restrictions. A national opinion survey out of Johns Hopkins University in June found that 54% of the public reported trusting science “a lot,” while 46% trusted science “some,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Those who doubt science are less likely to practice physical distancing, wear masks, and, eventually, take vaccines.

Part of the problem, as Timothy Caulfield pointed out in The Globe and Mail, is that COVID-19-related science is being conducted and circulated at such a furious pace, it is creating “a churning sea of bad data, conflicting results and hyped headlines.” Conspiracy theorists are cherry-picking hastily published studies to reach wider and wider audiences, while changing policies and expert disagreements have prompted uncertainty and head-spinning in the general public.

On Monday, microbiologist Gary Kobinger resigned from the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, citing the need for more transparency from the federal government. Clearly, concerns about trust in science and the influence of misinformation were top-of-mind when Kobinger, who was one of the developers of a successful Ebola vaccine, made the decision to step down. He wants the task force to open its deliberations to journalists specializing in health and enable Canadians to tune in, iPolitics reported.

Kobinger’s protest over what is essentially a failure of science communication comes at a tense moment for Canada’s research community, as we wait to find out what will happen with the office of the Chief Science Advisor, currently held by Mona Nemer, whose term expires tomorrow. At the time of writing, no announcements have been made about what will happen with the position. The organization Evidence for Democracy (E4D) has penned an open letter encouraging Ottawa to formalize the position by enshrining it in legislation.

We support both Kobinger’s call for greater transparency and E4D’s appeal to renew and secure the role of the Chief Science Advisor. While it’s understandable that the threat to public acceptance of science could prompt a defensive posture, we believe that a more open and participatory approach will inspire confidence. Further, writing its commitment to science into law would send a powerful signal to Canadians that the federal government is following the best advice to chart a path through the pandemic.