The role of the scientist has always been two-fold – a balancing act between research and communication. Given communication tends to be correlated with trust, the reason for this dual role is clear: research is allowed or disallowed through regulation, which is controlled by politics, which is controlled by public opinion. A particularly prescient example was the 2018 decision by the European Union to put harsher restrictions on crops edited by CRISPR technology, seen by many as a response to the European public’s general distrust of science and majorly impacting research into these technologies. What research is funded then, is fuelled eventually by how much the science is trusted. And this research can change the world, or not, depending on whether it’s allowed to by the opinions of the many. Which is why it pays to be invested in the general perception of science, and why a survey conducted recently caught my interest as much as it did.

“What research is funded then, is fuelled eventually by how much the science is trusted”

Published at the start of this year, the Genetics Society, a group of researchers from prominent UK universities, conducted a survey to assess how science, and genetics more specifically, had changed in the minds of the public since the COVID-19 pandemic. The results were, generally speaking, encouraging. An increased correspondence with the public about what was being done in the scientific world to help combat the disease seems to have done the job of granting a little more faith in the commonly mistrusted field of genetics. In general, science was trusted more after the pandemic by 30% of people surveyed, with far fewer (less than 7%) becoming more distrustful. So, it’s clear that there was a general increase in trust.

And I believe most of this comes down to a greater understanding of the science. I learn about genetics in my degree all the time, and I’m yet to see modern experiments that have shown me that the field, as a whole, isn’t a force for good in the world. It’s hard not to notice the correlation between a massive increase in communication to the public about the research going on and this spike in trust. Let’s be real here, before PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing was mainstream news, how many people knew what the genetic techniques behind PCR were? It’s hardly a new technique – PCR has been a mainstay of lab work in a wide range of fields since its creation in 1983. But, of course, the public doesn’t know that, because why would they? And so genetics remains a strange, almost threatening, area to most.

“Genetics remains a strange, almost threatening, area to most”

And COVID did change that. Whether it’s through the success of the vaccine, or increased communication about science, something was working. But part of me worries we’re slipping back now. Another report from the US shows a fall in trust of scientists down to pre-COVID levels. It serves as an important reminder that our collective memory is short; the progress we made during the pandemic is far from permanent.

There’s an issue with media presentation here too, I think. You might remember a fairly recent bit of news on the birth of the first “three-parent babies” in the UK. Which is exactly how it was reported by the major news sites. With articles headlined things such as “Baby born from three people’s DNA in UK first” (BBC) and “First ‘three-parent babies’ born in Britain” (The Telegraph), it’s not surprising that on multiple occasions, various friends quizzed me about why science would ever do this. And to be fair, the impression from the headlines supports the viewpoint that genetics is messing with human lives for seemingly no reason.


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There is a motive, however. These babies have been born with almost entirely two parent DNA like any other, and only the addition of a third, tiny dose of mitochondrial DNA from a separate egg cell to allow mothers with unhealthy mitochondria to not pass any mitochondrial diseases – life-threatening conditions which often result in the deaths of the children – to the next generation. The new DNA only acts to prevent these diseases, there are effectively no modifications to any other trait. So I find it hard to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Still, I understand why these headlines lead people to question it. In their defence, the articles invariably go on to discuss the benefits of the technique and almost always end up leaning in favour of the treatment. But I think it’s fairly telling that none of the article headlines say “New technique to prevent mitochondrial disease used in UK”. Utilising a more alarming title may be a good way to reel in readers, but I fear the consequences for public trust in science and research. The sad truth is that a lot of people just don’t read past the headline.  

So what’s my point? Maybe I’m simply justifying the existence of science communication, and thus my own article’s importance, to myself. That feels a little conceited though. And odds are, if you’ve read this far, I’m preaching to the choir; you’re probably willing to read through the science for yourself anyway. I suppose then my real goal is to convince any other Natural Scientist, or Medic, or anyone else with scientific knowledge to help out. If people come up to you with questions about science, or concerns about where our fields are going, try to find the time and have a chat. When we can reach a point where all of us are willing to talk about science’s progress with anyone who’s willing to listen, perception can change. It was proven to do so once, back during the pandemic. I firmly believe it can happen again.