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Mixed Verdict on Who Benefits From Scientists' Work
Gallup Blog

Mixed Verdict on Who Benefits From Scientists' Work

by Andrew Dugan and Steve Crabtree

Despite the countless ways in which science has improved people's lives, people around the world have mixed opinions on how science helps society. Most people worldwide -- a median of 65% across 144 countries -- say the work that scientists do benefits people like them. However, considerably fewer -- a median of 33% -- say scientists' work benefits most people in their country, while 35% say it benefits some people, and 19% say it benefits very few.

How People View the Benefits of Science: Median Global Results*
In general, do you think the work that scientists do benefits -- people like you? Most, some or very few people in this country?
Yes 65
No 24
Most 33
Some 35
Very few 19
*Median result across 144 countries
Wellcome Global Monitor, 2018

These results come from the 2018 Wellcome Global Monitor, the first worldwide study of public attitudes toward science and health.

The United Nations considers the ability of all people to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress a human right and a core promise of the scientific community. Previous surveys have explored this topic, but this research has been largely restricted to a narrow set of high-income countries. The Wellcome Global Monitor offers a much more comprehensive assessment of how the world perceives the benefits of science, and how those perceptions relate to people's level of trust in scientists.

Residents of Countries With High Income Inequality More Unsure of Benefits

While the idea that science benefits people is widespread in many countries, it is not the dominant view everywhere. In dozens of countries, especially those with higher-than-normal levels of income inequality, less than half say science benefits people like them. However, this is often attributable to many people expressing no opinion on the matter rather than outright skepticism. Majorities in three countries - Haiti, Albania and Mongolia -- did say science does not benefit people like them.

Residents in most countries are skeptical that science benefits "most" others, which suggests that many people see scientific advances being applied unevenly in their countries -- and leaving at least some of the population behind. This is particularly true in regions in which people are accustomed to high levels of inequality in living conditions, such as Latin America and Southern Africa. By contrast, in regions where inequality is unusually low -- such as Northern Europe -- the percentage who say science benefits most people is much higher.

One exception to this general trend is China, where 60% say science benefits most in their country -- despite rising levels of income inequality in recent decades. But that inequality is the result of dramatic growth that has also brought broad-based economic optimism among the Chinese population. In 2018, 82% of Chinese overall felt their standard of living was improving - and this figure dropped only somewhat to 70% even among those in the lowest income group.

This general sense of widespread economic gains -- along with sharp increases in government funding for scientific research -- likely contributes to the perception among Chinese that science is benefitting most people.

Belief in Personal Benefit of Science Common in Many Lower-Income Countries

Residents of high-income countries tend to agree that science benefits people like them in higher numbers than those in middle- or low-income countries. Across 45 high-income countries, a median of 74% said science benefits people like them. By comparison, the median percentage stood at about six in 10 for each of the three other country income-levels (low, lower-middle and upper-middle), despite substantial wealth differences between these groups.

While the country with the strongest level of support in the personal benefits of science was a high-income country (Saudi Arabia at 89%), support was only slightly lower at 85% in Bangladesh (a lower-middle-income country). And while China is one of the richest upper-middle-income countries, people there are about as likely as people in low-income Liberia to believe science benefits people like them (76% and 78%, respectively).

Graphic. Display shows the range in country scores and the median scores on personal benefits of science.

Economic, Social Factors Related to Perceived Benefit of Science on Society

Attitudes about how much of society benefits from science are notably more positive in high-income countries, with a median of 44% of people saying science benefits "most" others, which is well above levels in the other income groups. At the extreme, the maximum result among high-income countries (Denmark, at 78%) is considerably higher than the highest country results for the other three income groups.

Graphic. Display shows the range in country scores and the median scores on benefits of science to others.

But with a median of 33% saying science benefits "most" others, residents in low-income countries tend to see the benefits of science as being more inclusive than people in lower-middle or upper-middle countries (medians of 25% and 28%, respectively).

Other societal factors, such as governance, may help better understand these results. The data show a clear, positive relationship between confidence in institutions and views on how inclusive the benefits of science are to society. A good example is Latin America, a region where people tend to have lower confidence in its institutions compared with people in other major regions. Likewise, people in this region were least likely to say science benefits "most" others -- in nearly every country, more people said science benefits "very few" rather than "most" others.

Views on Benefits of Science Closely Linked to Trust in Scientists

Perceptions about the benefits of science may say something about an even larger issue -- the current state of the relationship between the scientific community and the public, known as the "social contract." The social contract, though figurative, refers to the expectations the public has of the scientific community -- including the expectation that scientists will conduct publicly beneficial research. The ability to access the benefits of science may be an important factor in the minds of many people when thinking about their overall relationship with science.

As a comprehensive measure that assesses the different types of trust a person might have in scientists, the Wellcome Global Monitor Trust in Scientists Index may provide a good estimate of a person's overall relationship with science. As such, it seems reasonable to expect a strong relationship between opinion about access to the benefits of science and overall trust in scientists.

The data strongly support this in most countries. Across more than 140 countries, those who said they believe science benefits people like them were far more likely than those who did not believe this to have a high amount of trust in scientists (median of 22% vs. 6%, respectively).

A median of about one in three people who say science benefits most others in society has a high amount of trust in scientists, compared with 10% who said science benefits "some" and 5% who said science benefits "very few." Among this latter group, nearly four in 10 (39%) had a low amount of trust in scientists.

How Perceptions of Benefits of Science Shapes Trust in Scientists: Global Median Results
Median level of trust on Wellcome Global Monitor Trust in Scientists Index by opinion on benefits of science
People like me Not people like me Most Some Very few
% % % % %
High trust 22 6 32 10 5
Medium trust 58 46 53 64 43
Low trust 10 35 6 18 39
Wellcome Global Monitor, 2018

These differences notwithstanding, a statistical analysis of the attitudes or characteristics that are most predictive of higher trust did not include how people responded to either question about the benefits of science. The reason for this decision was related to the concern that there may be considerable conceptual overlap between the two items about the benefits of science and the Wellcome Global Monitor Trust in Scientist Index.

If these two items are included in the analysis, they are by far the strongest predictors of how much trust in scientists a person has, including in comparison with two other salient characteristics: learning science at school and confidence in institutions.

The relationship between how people see the benefits of science and their overall trust in the field demands further study and will continue to be an important focus of future administrations of the Wellcome Global Monitor.

More detailed analysis about the world's attitudes toward science -- including vaccines -- is available in the Wellcome Global Monitor report, and the data are open to the public through the Wellcome website.

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