As the Covid-19 pandemic raged, New Zealanders and Australians developed the world’s highest levels of trust in scientists, newly released survey data has found – and those trust levels soared as the global crisis evolved.
The Wellcome Global Monitor, conducted by Gallup, surveyed 119,000 people across 113 countries. It found 62% of the two countries’ citizens said they trusted scientists “a lot”, compared with a global average of 41%. While trust in scientists had increased around the world since 2018, the portion who said they trusted scientists a lot jumped 15 percentage points in Australia and New Zealand, compared with nine points elsewhere. In 2018, western Europe had had the highest levels of trust in scientists, but they were overtaken in the past two years.
Particularly during the first year of the pandemic, Australia and New Zealand were lauded for the success of their zero-Covid strategies, which closely matched with public health experts’ advice. The survey – which grouped the two countries together, with no national breakdown – was completed before the recent Delta outbreaks, and reflects a strong sense that the two governments were in step with the science: they were by far the most likely to believe that their governments were making their decisions based on scientific advice. Sixty-two percent said their governments were basing decisions on science – compared with just 25% in North America, and 43% in western Europe.
New Zealand and Australian governments were able to initially offer their citizens a much more cohesive-seeming response than some of those seen elsewhere – and people rewarded that with high levels of compliance and trust. One paper studied a cohort of New Zealanders’ attitudes pre- and post-lockdown, and found those post-lockdown had higher trust in science, government, and each other.
“Under the conditions of a strong and cohesive national response,” the researchers wrote, “people are likely to lean on and trust their politicians, scientists, police, and communities”.
Dr Lara Greaves, co-author of the study and lecturer at University of Auckland, said: “Because we’ve had a relatively good Covid response, the scientists associated with it [have had] that reflected onto them as a profession, in a way that we wouldn’t have if we had had worse Covid response overall.”
She said she was unsurprised by the result. Australia and New Zealand had been marked by more technocratic responses, and scientists had become high-profile figures or household names, often working in tandem with governments. That was “especially in the case of New Zealand, where the prime minister [Jacinda Ardern] and [director general of health] Ashley Bloomfield and others do cite scientists, and public health advice and regularly thank [scientists] and talk about our response being based on science.”
Greaves said that while attitudes often return to baseline after a crisis, trust in scientists could endure at a higher level, as the pandemic had increased scientific literacy and appreciation in media and the population. “A silver lining of the pandemic has been that we have more public scientists … we’ve now got these scientists who are public figures in a way that we didn’t have before,” she said. The influence of those figures seems to come through in the data – while trust in the countries’ scientists was the highest in the world, trust in the more abstract “science” was 1% behind western Europe, at 58% versus 59%.
Australia and New Zealand also had sky-high trust that their health workers were scientifically informed – 82%, versus 76% in North America and 74% in western Europe. They were most likely in the world to believe their friends and family were following scientific advice: 47% trusted friends and family to do so.
The region where the Global Monitor documented the lowest levels of trust in scientists was sub-saharan Africa – down five points to 19%. The region with the biggest jump upward was east Asia, up from 33% to 49%. Western Europe was up seven points to 59%, and North America up 10 points to 54%.