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Societal trust in science, research and innovation


Societal trust in the research system and confidence in its outcomes is vital to ensure the EU’s contribution to attain the Sustainable Development Goals and to achieve the European Green Deal targets; for the uptake of innovation in society; and for continued public support for investment in R&I.

Trust depends on scientists and engineers’ capacity to demonstrate high standards of research integrity, an ethical mind-set, critical thinking and rigorous exploration of ideas in an open, transparent manner; and their desire to maximise the societal relevance, robustness and overall quality of outcomes. This, in turn, is fostered by conducive institutional governance arrangements and policy environments. In addition, citizen and civil society’s involvement in co-creating R&I agendas and contents makes research more relevant and responsive to society and strengthens co-ownership and trust in scientific evidence and innovation.

However, not all research is conducted in line with these high standards. Rules and guidelines are sometimes missing or ignored, research protocols and raw data are not always published, methodological limitations may be inadequately addressed, inappropriate statistical analyses may lead to exaggeration of conclusions, papers are generally only published when significant results are obtained, and self-interest may interfere in peer-review processes. A significant part of research cannot be reproduced and therefore cannot be relied upon to build a solid base for policy or innovation, and this leads in turn to a decrease in societal trust in research and innovation. Compounding this, research often addresses issues of limited direct relevance to end-users, or comes to conclusions that are wildly out of step with societal needs and values, including gender equality related ones, because societal input to setting the research agenda and taking part in research is often treated as an afterthought – long after innovations and research trajectories have been decided.

To better understand the nature and scale of the sources and consequences of mistrust of society in science and the challenges of science-society co-creation, a series of expert workshops, small-scale studies and participatory research actions should take into account existing knowledge (including from projects funded under previous Framework Programmes) and should lead to new and robust evidence and analysis, as a basis for further policy action. Evidence from relevant Eurobarometers, and national science barometers, should form particularly important inputs to this action.

The action should involve a broad range of potential users and stakeholders and the general public in co-creation (e.g. civil society, businesses, research/academia, public authorities and policy makers), develop policy guidance and recommendations, and implement innovative means of communicating and disseminating the findings and messages. As such, Responsible Research and Innovation could be a relevant research approach. Close co-operation should be sought with relevant projects to encourage uptake and early sharing of knowledge and evidence.