The spread of disinformation and misinformation — often fuelled by skepticism — is on the rise. Combating this trend and understanding why some people deny, doubt or resist scientific findings and explanations is crucial to addressing the complex and existential issues impacting our societies.

The University of Waterloo’s new Trust in Science and Technology Research Network brings together researchers and practitioners from across disciplines to improve communication with the public and build trust in science and technology. Under the leadership of the inaugural co-directors, Dr. Donna Strickland, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, Canada Research Chair in Science, Health and Technology Communication, it is the first multidisciplinary research network of its kind in Canada to tackle this important issue.

Donna Strickland
Dr. Donna Strickland

Ashley Rose
Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher

 

“The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the difficulties and deadly consequences of science denial. Similarly, the effects of the climate crisis we’re facing remain unabated and yet some still deny its existence or the impacts it is having on our world,” says Strickland, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Stronger scientific literacy and understanding can help to address some of the misinformation, but this issue is bigger than just a knowledge gap and requires a multidisciplinary solution. Our research network is a collaboration across science, engineering, philosophy, psychology, and rhetoric and communication studies to get to the root causes.”

The Trust in Science and Technology Research Network plans to begin engagement with the public through an expert speaker series and a Citizen Science Project where Waterloo region community members can offer input and actively participate in the scientific research communication process.

“It is important that we engage authentically with members of the community through events and activities to get to the core of what information the public needs and values,” says Mehlenbacher, professor in the Department of English Language and Literature. “A common theme I have encountered in my work in science communications is the importance of trust when we talk about big issues that impact us all. We need to move beyond a broadcast model of translating knowledge and focus on building trust with people to help inform their decisions around complex scientific topics.”

The research network is also collaborating with fellow researchers in the faculties of Arts, Engineering, Environment and Science to begin building and sharing resources to support faculty who conduct public engagement and communication work. In the long term, the research network plans to expand its partnerships further to include all Waterloo faculties as well as external partners including provincial and national organizations.

“The research network will develop mechanisms to enhance trust in science and technology with a broad range of stakeholders,” says Dr. Mary Wells, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and one of the founding members of the research network. “Building trust and understanding of science and technology will allow researchers and scholars to communicate, mobilize and share knowledge with the public, policymakers, politicians, industry leaders and others.”

Additional founding members of the network include Dr. Jonathan Fugelsang, professor of Psychology, Dr. Carla Fehr, professor of Philosophy and the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, and Dr. Christine Dow, professor of Geography and Environmental Management and Canada Research Chair in Glacier Hydrology and Ice Dynamics. Seed funding for the Trust in Science and Technology Research Network was provided through the University of Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Networks, Programs and Initiatives Fund.