Natasha Rooney

Have we lost trust in science?

Trust in Science, Society, and the Australian State: A Crisis in the Making?

“The return to school has no room for anti-vax sentiment or vaccine hesitancy,” NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell told the Sydney Morning Herald. The questioning and the loss of trust in science has been brought into full force by the Covid-19 pandemic and has entered public discourse and all spheres of private and communal life.

Vaccines have been splashed across headlines in Australia, with rapid uptake amongst the latest added cohort tempered by vocal, policed anti-vaccination protests. This questioning of science and trust in scientists poses a much larger question – How are science, society, and the state interacting? Why do understandings of science continue to be limited to ‘STEM’ disciplines rather than all systemic forms of knowledge? And how do educators and researchers respond to such concerns in a higher education context that has been severely hampered by the epidemic whilst its work becomes more visible, and sometimes more important than ever? 

A recent symposium held online by Deakin University’s Centre for Research for Educational Impact (REDI), and the Science and Society Network (SSN) sought to spotlight such questions. ‘Science, Society and the Australian State: A Crisis in the Making?’ ran across three days with four panels and a roundtable. Both vaccine uptake and the climate crisis were common threads across the event. Mitchell’s statement about the incongruence of vaccine hesitancy and open classrooms begs for debate from university leadership and institutional representatives, but crucially requires inter-disciplinary perspectives and a view across philanthropy, private sector, government policy and media.

Scepticism and loss of trust in science was a major thread throughout the symposium. Professor Emerita, Raewyn Connell suggested that the proliferation of knowledge may be attributed to its commodification. However, dealing with this knowledge was the key question – How do we communicate across disciplines and avoid miscommunication in a sea of knowledge? Brian Schmidt, Nobel Laureate and Vice-Chancellor, Australian National University commented on the rise of the internet and how we now face a drowning out the voices of the academics and experts. He asserted that in the educational context students can be taught how to understand this information and learn how to act critically and ethically. 

With the proliferation of knowledge claims there is a tendency to deprive science of its context, nuance, and complexity. When this happens the ability to appropriate or simply deny scientific knowledge becomes much easier. The rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories available online and on social media compete with knowledge claims from experts. Alexandra Roginski from Deakin University spoke about her research on ‘Conspirituality’ and how deep social rifts have been created through questioning the seriousness of Covid-19. Roginski provoked us to consider the historical precedence of misrepresenting science and attacking of scientific consensus.  These are not new phenomena and have a history within the campaigns of the tobacco lobby. From a public facing perspective, epidemiologist Catherine Bennett from Deakin University discussed her role in communicating epidemiology expertise with the media. She stressed the importance of starting conversations and figuring out what information people have. She clarified that some people unknowingly spread false information while others may do so on purpose. A sympathetic and informed position can enable dialogues which convey enough complexity to explain key ideas and communicate effectively. 

As the symposium continued, the role of the educational institution became a key focus. Centring on the curriculum, Mark Rose from Deakin University discussed the impact science and policy on indigenous Australians. He advocated for a curriculum that balances the many facets of modern Australia and equips children to deal with competing worldviews, allowing a nimbleness of mind to see different perspectives, yet remain anchored at the same time. Focusing on the university, Tamson Pietsch (University of Technology Sydney) used a framework of ‘publics’ as she acknowledged that universities are deeply dynamic and political in nature. She placed climate change at the centre of the issues around which publics must come together to bring demands on governments and institutions. Student and broader educational publics can act to meet the challenges facing universities, the educational sector and, to an extent, help shape society at large. 

Finally, it became clear that tackling eroding trust in science is not just a job for ‘the scientists’, although it is often presented as such. The latest reform to higher education illustrates how STEM values have been favoured above critical thinking and creativity offered by the humanities. However, as Joy Damousi from Australian Catholic University explained, the collaborative skillsets of both STEM and HASS are required to tackle global challenges. The so called ‘divide’ between the two areas of knowledge is complicated and nuanced. Glenn Withers, Professor of Economics, Australian National University argued that there is value in all forms of knowledge. In particular, he suggested that holistic knowledge offered by indigenous knowledge systems may provide a way forward to work across disciplines and should be developed and institutionalised as an additional learned academy. 

With the threats of climate change and Covid-19 playing upon our collective psyche, grappling with the issues of science, society and the Australian state is a critical task. So where do we go from here? The symposium debating the nexus of science, society and state has helped advance a set of critical debates. Tackling vaccine hesitancy and climate change is an interdisciplinary task, which requires educators and researchers to think critically and creatively. Educators, researchers, and institutions play an important role in forming publics and taking a stance. The role of nuanced, yet clear communication is required to spread accurate knowledges against a plethora of information to prevent misunderstandings and gain trust. Finally, taking different knowledges into account, such as indigenous knowledges, may offer us a way forward in facilitating holistic and interdisciplinary work to take on the developing challenges we collectively face. 

Natasha Rooney (Deakin University) is a PhD Candidate at the Alfred Deakin Institute of Globalisation and Citizenship, Deakin University. Her research is on the circulation of epigenetic and postgenomic models of life in the Global South.