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Academics are back in the spotlight but must take every opportunity to build on the public’s renewed trust in them

Professor Rana Mitter FBA, Vice-President for Public Engagement at the British Academy

Whether it is trust in government, institutions, the media or in each other, there can be no doubt that the UK and other Western democracies have experienced profound crises of trust in recent years. As social psychologist and Fellow of the British Academy Professor Dominic Abrams has shown, trust across British society fell to record lows at the end of the 2010s. A national survey following the 2019 general election found that 60% of people expressed distrust and only around 20% expressed trust in the government.

This low point came on the back of a politically turbulent few years and followed a decade during which dystopian concepts such as ‘fake news’ and ‘dis- and misinformation’ entered the mainstream. In 2016 “post-truth” was even voted international word of the year.

This crisis of trust has not just affected politicians and journalists but also academics, who have sometimes come under fire because of perceptions that they are either disconnected from wider society or lean toward one side or another in political controversies.

But this perception may have always been too simplistic, and it certainly isn’t true today. Polling commissioned by the British Academy reveals that academics rank highest (50%) in terms of trustworthiness in stark contrast to politicians (1%), businesspeople (4%) and journalists (7%). Due to the pandemic, the ongoing climate emergency and of course the current cost-of-living crisis, demand for expertise is growing. From the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), experts and expertise are back in the limelight and in demand. As a result, the public sphere is increasingly populated by a well-informed public engaging in policy debates ranging from monetary policy to pandemic response and preparedness.

No time for self-adulation

This is, however, no time for self-adulation for the academic community. The Academy’s polling also found that a significant proportion of respondents don’t really know what academics do: nearly two in five (39%) say that they have little or no knowledge of academics or their work. Facing up to this contradiction should encourage academics to realise the potential and value in public-facing and engaged scholarship. Central to the task of building trust between the public and experts will be proactive efforts to spread our work and its impact beyond labs and libraries. 

In June, we at the British Academy threw open our doors to the public for our annual Summer Showcase. Our first in-person Showcase following a pandemic hiatus proved to be a resounding success with over 1500 visitors over the two-day festival. From research into accent variation and bias and the building blocks of conspiracy theories to endangered languages and engaging your spatial brain, the showcase gave people a chance to meet with academics and find out the value of their work. A particular highlight of the Showcase was our schools’ day, which saw local school pupils – aged 14 and over – to explore subjects beyond the curriculum and get a taste of the diversity of research in the SHAPE disciplines (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy). 

Exploring when and why academic research is viewed as relevant and authoritative in policy-making

The Academy also recently set up a programme to explore when and why academic research is viewed as relevant and authoritative in policy-making and, linked to this, what types of research claims have the most traction and ability to elicit trust. This programme builds on insights into issues of public trust gathered from the Academy’s work on Cohesive Societies and how to bring in the voices of underrepresented groups, including those of children and young people as identified through our Childhood Policy Programme. The findings should be enlightening, particularly for those of us who want to build on the public’s trust in academics.

Researchers must continue to seek out opportunities like these to demystify research and academic life. As a matter of principle but also as a matter of stubborn self-interest, academics can and should be at the forefront of the battle to build the public’s trust in informed and hard-earned expertise. In so doing, they can dispel once and for all the popular ‘Ivory Tower’ trope associated with academia and prove that the concepts of ‘elite’ and ‘expert’ are not interchangeable.

By Professor Rana Mitter FBA, Vice-President for Public Engagement at the British Academy

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