Building Public Trust in Science: Communicating Science Across the Partisan Divide

Building Public Trust in Science

We received some awesome mission statement submissions during last month’s State Your Mission Challenge!  One of our favorite mission statements got us thinking about some intriguing questions… Science (and by default, scientists) has become quite politicized, particularly around certain issues that are often the focus of partisan debates, such as climate change.  

  1. How can scientists engage in essential science communication about polarized issues with members of the public who may not agree with the scientist’s message or perceived position on a respective issue?
  2. How can science communication approaches build meaningful connections with the public in ways that meet people where they are? 
  3. Can effective science communication that specifically addresses conservative audiences enhance scientific learning and build trust across the partisan divide?

As a starting point for what will surely be a fantastic discussion, we are reviewing the recently published article, “Scientific Risk Communication about Controversial Issues Influences Public Perceptions of Scientists’ Political Orientations and Credibility” by Emily Vraga, et al.  Check out the summary of the article (below) and join us for a Twitter chat on April 10th at 6:00pm (PST).

But wait!  There’s more!  

We will have a special guest joining us on our Twitter chat—Honorable Mention winner in our State Your Mission Challenge, Mark Smith (@MS71541719).  We’ve invited Mark to join us for our upcoming chat because he writes an apolitical environmental blog for a conservative audience. We are very impressed by Mark’s innovative science communication approach and we are looking forward to learning from him!  See you on #scicommJC!

Article Summary

The lack of familiarity with actual living scientists and exposure to science (and scientists) through media and pop culture present a conundrum for scientists engaging in risk communication.  (Risk communication highlights the potential dangers of an issue without advocating for a specific solution).  This study focused on the “contextual effects model,” which suggests that not all risk communication is equally effective at creating a bridge between a scientist and the public.  In other words, one’s political orientation influences his/her perceptions of a scientist’s ideology differently depending on the issue that the scientist presents.  Specifically, this study examined whether risk communication shape the public’s perceptions of the scientist’s political beliefs, especially for contentious or polarized issues, and influence perceptions of the scientist’s trust and credibility?


This study used an experimental design, in which all participants read an excerpt from an op-ed in USA Today by issue-expert Dr. Dave Wilson (fictional scientist created for this study) that explicitly addressed the risks from recent scientific studies on one of four issues:

  • marijuana use (polarized; conservative)
  • climate change (polarized; liberal)
  • flu (non-polarized)
  • severe weather (non-polarized)

A sample of Americans who were members of an online Qualtrics panel (during Oct. and Nov. 2015) were selected (N=808; n= ~200 per issue) to approximate the national U.S. representation in gender, age, and education. Participants were asked to share their views as follows:

  1. Rate their own and the scientist’s political ideology on a 5- point scale (very conservative to very liberal)
  2. Rate the scientist’s party affiliation based on a 7-point scale  (Strong Republican to Strong Democrat)
  3. Share their perceived credibility of the scientist using an index based on nine items: expertise; intelligence; competence; trustworthiness; sensitivity; concern for society; care for society; and honesty.


The results suggest that when a scientist addresses the risks of an issue that is controversial and polarizing, the public tends to perceive scientists as being a member of the political group associated with the issue (e.g., climate change: liberal, Democratic; marijuana: conservative, Republican).  However, perceptions of the scientist’s political orientations tended to cluster around the scale midpoint, suggesting that the public, overall, tends to see scientists as moderate in their political orientations.

Both liberal and conservative members of the public make assumptions about the political orientation of a scientist when they perceive the views of the scientist as being different from their own.  Conservatives had a greater tendency to see the scientist as less or more credible depending on whether the scientist was communicating about an issue that challenged or reinforced their views, respectively.  This study suggests that communicating risk particularly to a conservative audience must address the issue of trust between a scientist and the audience.

Questions for Future Research:

Do other issues that scientists address through public communication efforts result in similar public perceptions about the communicating scientist’s political orientations and credibility?

Additionally, when risk communication includes possible solutions, does this affect public perceptions?  Finally, how can scientists mediate the tendencies of the public to perceive them as political actors and belonging to certain political groups?  

Can science communication specifically addressing conservative audiences more effectively enhance scientific learning and trust building across the partisan divide?  What unique perspectives and innovative science communication approaches can we learn from this? Let’s discuss!


Vraga, Emily, et al.  2018. “Scientific Risk Communication about Controversial Issues Influences Public Perceptions of Scientists’ Political Orientations and Credibility.” R. Soc. open sci. 5: 170505.