The COVID-19 pandemic saw the public profile of science increase to an unprecedented level. This was particularly true for genetics, thanks to the prominence of PCR testing and the development of COVID-19 vaccines. But did this extraordinary level of coverage lead to any long-term changes in how people feel about science and genetics?
In a study funded by the Genetics Society, researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, and UCL commissioned a survey of over 2000 randomly selected British adults through the public polling company Kantar Public. The results have been published this week as a report ‘COVID-19 and the Public Perception of Genetics.’
- As a baseline, most people were trusting of genetic technologies before the pandemic. Nearly half (45%) reported they trusted these to work for the societal good. 37% were neutral on this question, while 18% said they did not, and only very few (1-2%) were strongly distrusting.
- More than a third of the respondents said that their trust in science increased during the pandemic.
- In particular, attitudes to genetics have become more positive. When asked if their trust in genetics had gone up during the pandemic, four times more people said their trust had increased than those who reported that it had gone down.
- As a control, the same increase in trust was not seen for sciences that were not involved in the pandemic (for instance geology).
- Nearly half (44%) of the UK public would like to hear more about science in the media. In contrast, less than 10% thought that there is too much coverage of the science in the media.
Despite the positive news, Professor Alison Woollard (Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford), a co-author on the study, warned that scientists should not be complacent. ‘We think we have established the limits of science communication. Despite all the talk of PCR over the last many months, we found that 30% hadn’t heard the term or knew it was a tool for testing for the virus. It is hard to see how any science can have more exposure than PCR has had. We need to be realistic and understand that, no matter what, we will never reach everyone. For informing people about things like vaccines this is important to know.’