To have a clearly described societal benefit is said to be an important factor for people to be able to have confidence in research. But it seems that this matters less and may even have the opposite effect. This is one of the findings of a new study undertaken by the Swedish non-profit association VA (Public & Science) investigating the Swedish public’s views of humanities research.
VA has been measuring the Swedish public’s confidence in various research areas since 2002. Confidence varies greatly between research areas, a pattern that has been consistent over the years and the proportion with a high level of confidence is lowest for research in the humanities. This is largely explained by the fact that many people lack an opinion about the humanities, rather than that they have low confidence.
That so many lacked an opinion made us suspect that it could be a communication problem for humanities research, rather than a problem related to confidence,Gustav Bohlin, researcher at VA (Public & Science) and one of the authors of the report.
In order to better understand who exactly lacks an understanding of the humanities, what affects confidence in research and researchers, and how communication about humanities research might elicit higher confidence, two surveys were conducted in 2020 and 2022.
The most important factors for having confidence in researchers in the humanities are that researchers “appear to understand the situation of ordinary people” and that ”they are clear about the limitations of the research”. That the researcher is employed at a university with a good reputation or that they are often seen in newspapers and on TV is considered less important. The most important thing is that the research follows ethical standards and is of clear benefit to society.
With the help of short descriptions of research projects within the humanities where the societal benefit was mentioned in different ways (immediate benefit, future benefit or not at all), the study tested whether people’s confidence is affected by how the research is described. Surprisingly, descriptions that highlighted the societal benefit of research did not instill greater confidence, rather the opposite.
There seems to be a difference between what we believe we base our confidence on and what we actually base our confidence on. We see that a personal interest in research and general confidence in research play a greater role in eliciting our confidence than how the societal benefit is described.Gustav Bohlin.
A summary of the results of the study is available in English here.
About the study
The study has been carried out with funding from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. The survey was conducted with the help of the market research company Ipsos and participants were invited from their randomly recruited web panel. In the first survey, 1,024 people participated (participation rate 33 percent) and in the second 2,016 people (participation rate 31 percent).