Trust in scientists in times of pandemic: Panel evidence from 12 countries

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
October 05, 2021; vol. 118 no. 40


Political Sciences
Trust in scientists in times of pandemic: Panel evidence from 12 countries
Yann Algan, Daniel Cohen, Eva Davoine, Martial Foucault, and Stefanie Stantcheva
PNAS October 5, 2021 118 (40) e2108576118;
During the COVID-19 pandemic, support for nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) and compliant behavior changed substantially over time. Using a large-scale, longitudinal, and representative survey for 12 countries from March to December 2020 (n = 54,000), combined with experimental data, we show that trust in scientists is the critical determinant of societies’ resilience in their fight against the pandemic. Yet, this trust has eroded dramatically in some countries such as France. Individuals and countries for which trust in scientists has declined have experienced fading support for and compliance with NPIs. In countries where trust in government is low, the independence of scientists and scientific institutions is essential to obtain citizen’s support for measures necessary to protect public health.
This article analyzes the specific and critical role of trust in scientists on both the support for and compliance with nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) during the COVID-19 pandemic. We exploit large-scale, longitudinal, and representative surveys for 12 countries over the period from March to December 2020, and we complement the analysis with experimental data. We find that trust in scientists is the key driving force behind individual support for and compliance with NPIs and for favorable attitudes toward vaccination. The effect of trust in government is more ambiguous and tends to diminish support for and compliance with NPIs in countries where the recommendations from scientists and the government were not aligned. Trust in others also has seemingly paradoxical effects: in countries where social trust is high, the support for NPIs is low due to higher expectations that others will voluntary social distance. Our individual-level longitudinal data also allows us to evaluate the effects of within-person changes in trust over the pandemic: we show that trust levels and, in particular, trust in scientists have changed dramatically for individuals and within countries, with important subsequent effects on compliant behavior and support for NPIs. Such findings point out the challenging but critical need to maintain trust in scientists during a lasting pandemic that strains citizens and governments.