The public tends not to trust privately funded research

Europeans tend not to trust scientists who depend on money from industry. This finding from the Science and Technology Eurobarometer 2010 is something politicians as well as researchers may want to consider.

Many European countries (for example Britain, Italy and Spain) are reducing research funding in the wake of the economic crisis. And many are looking towards industry to make up for some of the shortfall.

Sweden, on the other hand, is committed to an increase in government spending on research since the governmental decision in 2009. But as part of a welcome move towards greater interaction between universities and the wider community, there is also a clear shift towards increased collaborations with – and therefore funding from – industry.

Evidence suggests this policy could lead to the erosion of trust in science and researchers.

Two thirds of Swedes (66 per cent) agree with the statement “We can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues as they become more dependent on money from industry”. This is a higher level of mistrust than the European average of 58 per cent.

56 per cent of Swedes also believe that “Private funding of scientific and technological research limits the ability to understand things properly”. Again Swedes are more critical of private funding – the EU average is 50 per cent.

And in VA’s 2008 study The Value of Knowledge in the Business World (full report VA 2008:5 available in Swedish here), almost a quarter of respondents (23%) agreed that researchers lose their credibility if they collaborate with industry.

It seems that politicians across Europe have failed to convince the public of the benefits they expect from university-industry collaborations. If they want to reverse this and win public approval for their policy changes, there will need to be full and extensive dialogue. Without an open dialogue between all groups involved – the public, scientists, industry and politicians – there could be a back-lash from society. And that would be in no-one’s interest.

//Esther Crooks


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