There are large geographic divides in the US public’s trust of science, with rural residents being more sceptical than those from cities and the suburbs, according to new analysis by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After investigating decades worth of US public opinion survey data, the UW-Madison team found that approximately 30% of people living in rural areas have expressed a ‘great deal of confidence’ in scientists over the last 30 years, versus a 40% average among all Americans. By comparison, nearly 50% of urban and suburban residents reported high confidence in scientists.

‘This gap is not because rural residents are trusting science less, it is because suburban and urban people are trusting science more,’ says UW-Madison life sciences communication professor Dominique Brossard, the report’s senior author. Survey data shows, for example, that about 40% of suburban and urban residents said they trusted science in 2008. ‘We plan to drill down to the more granular level and find out if this has to do with education, incomes … or maybe the type of jobs people hold that may expose them to science,’ Brossard tells Chemistry World. ‘We need empirical evidence – something interesting is going on.’

Her team also uncovered that people of other faiths and non-religious respondents had a significantly higher level of trust in science than those who identify as Christian. Around 40% of Christian respondents expressed a great deal of confidence in scientists, which was similar to the general population, while people who practice other religions or are areligious reported higher confidence rates of between 50% and 60%.

Despite the rhetoric about the politicisation of science, it appears that any supposed gap in scientific trust between political parties is relatively insignificant from a historical perspective, Brossard says. Members of both political parties have expressed similar, high levels of confidence in scientists over the past 45 years. However, in 2018 there was a notable surge of confidence among Democrats to approximately 50%, versus about 40% for Republicans. This did temporarily create a slight partisan divide, Brossard notes.

Overall, Brossard emphasises that her team’s findings prove that scientists are among the most trusted professionals. Results from the 2018 General Social Survey indicated that 40% of respondents had a great deal of confidence in the leaders of scientific institutions, and that number has remained fairly stable since polling began in the 1970s. Only 7% of those participating in these surveys reported having ‘hardly any confidence’ in the scientific community – a figure that has not wavered much for decades. Brossard argues that the average American has confidence in the scientific community, and that there is no ‘war on science’.

Recent European polls suggest that, at least by some measures, Americans exhibit similar or slightly lower levels of trust in scientists than German and UK residents.

A separate survey of US adults by the non-partisan Pew Research Center revealed earlier this year that 86% of respondents had at least a ‘fair amount’ of confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interests. That figure represented a jump from 76% in 2016. Those results came after a very large global study by Wellcome determined that 72% of 140,000 people in 144 countries trust scientists.