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Communication role on perception and beliefs of EU Citizens about Science

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Improving science communication outreach across Europe

Which information sources do EU citizens use to access scientific information? Are they trustworthy?

Society

With a plethora of online news sources, how can we be sure our sources are credible? The EU-funded CONCISE project sought to provide qualitative knowledge through citizen consultation on the means/channels by which EU citizens acquire their science-related knowledge and how it influences their beliefs, opinions, and perceptions.

Overview of consultations

CONCISE organised five consultations in 2019 with a hundred participants from Spain, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Slovakia to identify their science information sources. “These public consultations provided an excellent opportunity for citizens from very different walks of life to meet and exchange ideas on the study topics,” explains Carolina Moreno-Castro, CONCISE project coordinator. CONCISE focused on four controversial science topics (vaccines, alternative and complementary medicines, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and climate change). The major goal was assessing how trustworthy their sources are, how people shape opinions and make decisions on science topics, and how the public perceives current media and institutional science communication efforts.

Consultation publications and findings

The CONCISE consortium transcribed and analysed the recordings from the consultations using two linguistic corpus software (T-Lab and N-Vivo). The main results were presented at a public event in November 2020 and several publications were also prepared on the consultations. Results showed that the levels of trust varied across countries and individuals. Participants seemed to trust official sources and close people like relatives to get science information on health and environmental topics. Some participants believed that they had a lot of science information. Others felt a lack of knowledge about essential points to make a ‘scientific’ decision. Companies were distrusted as information sources on vaccines or GMOs. Public institutions (governments, universities) and scientists were viewed as credible information sources. However, some citizens believed that research funders had vested interests. Digital media was perceived as a channel with less reliable science information. Format and design were considered just as important as message content. Sometimes, a poorly articulated source could be perceived as less precise. Many citizens explained the strategies they used to verify the information. This entailed assessing sources (who authored the study, who funded it, etc.) and cross-checking using personal criteria such as their own experience and relying on common sense. There weren’t remarkable differences in responses from the countries. CONCISE analysed the results taking into account the different country contexts. For example, in Poland and Slovakia, there wasn’t a collective of professionalised science communicators. In Spain, Italy and Portugal, there were associations and great activism on science communicators.

More training for science communicators

In all the countries, including those with associations of science communicators, citizens asked for more skills and training for journalists who report on science. Likewise, in the five countries, citizens demanded that the science information be obvious, transparent, and official, eliminating the possible biases of the companies that finance studies or research. CONCISE findings are also applicable to other European countries and can improve the communication of science. “Citizens should get science communication skills while obtaining their university degrees regardless of their field of study, and scientific and public institutions should hire specialised science communicators to disseminate and communicate science,” concludes Moreno-Castro.

Keywords

CONCISE, science, citizens, information, consultation, science communication

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