Building Bridges, Earning Trust: The WHY and the HOW of Public Trust in Science

December 15, 2023  • Sejal Goud, Jylana L. Sheats, Ph.D., MPH & Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D.

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“Trust” is a critical concept that has been described as being the “glue” of life— holding societies, organizations, and the relationships within, together. Often dependent on context and academic discipline, there is no universally accepted definition of trust. Common elements across definitions, however, are “perceived benefits and risks, uncertainty, credibility, and vulnerability.” While a long-standing topic of interest, there has been increasing attention and evaluation of trust in science; though trust in science has naturally ebbed and flowed over time, it has risen to the forefront of the national public conversation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, science is defined as “the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”

Public trust is one of three core pillars at the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program. In April 2023, we convened a diverse group of multi-sector experts to foster a candid, open conversation around the ‘why’—both why trust in science is important and also why levels of trust in science are variable. To translate these observations into action, a ‘how’ discussion followed in October 2023 with a focus on identifying concrete strategies to build and sustain trust in science. When organizing this second roundtable, we prioritized bringing together representatives from sectors that participants in the first, more theoretical roundtable identified as needing to be more included in conversations about public trust.