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Global Health

Fauci has become a celebrity overnight. Will he influence public perception of science?

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
April 5, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 13


It has been great to witness Anthony S. Fauci become something of a celebrity overnight. He is the physician and immunologist who has been leading the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He is now part of the Coronavirus Task Force that President Donald J. Trump assembled at the end of January to oversee the administration’s efforts to fight COVID-19. In this role, Fauci appears in the televised White House news briefings that provide daily updates to the press and the nation.

The media have seized on his persona and have turned him into a cult figure. His face has graced doughnuts, candles, T-shirts and socks. Why is this? The answer is simple: he is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with rigorous information, delivered in a humble and honest manner and with an approach that oozes trustworthiness. Scientific American nicely explains the essence of this Fauci phenomenon: “He’s showing us how to be not just trustworthy but actually trusted.”

At a time of misinformation about the spread of the virus and possible cures, Fauci enjoys a level of acceptance by the general population—aside from a number of conspiracy theorists who have accused him of working to undermine the president and issued death threats—that bodes well for the understanding of the crisis we are facing and for the perception of science in general.

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I hope his positive influence outlives the pandemic. I say this because I came across results from a survey carried out by chemical conglomerate 3M that point at gaps in the US public’s trust of science that would be nice to narrow down.

In 2019, the State of Science Index surveyed more than 14,000 people in 14 countries around the world, exploring themes such as the image of scientists, appreciation and trust of science, advocacy, and more.

Although the US is a world leader in science, when respondents were asked to rate how important science is to society today, 64% in the US said it was very important, whereas 82% in Brazil, for example, said it was.

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Other countries place a higher value on science than my country”: 85% of the Brazilians agreed, while only 65% of the US respondents did.

These data are conflicting: while most Brazilian respondents think that science is very important to society, many think that other countries place a higher value on science; by contrast, fewer US respondents rate science as very important, but think their country places a higher value than others.

There are also notable differences for the question “When you think about the role of science over the next 20 years does it make you feel more trusting or suspicious?” Eighty-five percent of South Korean respondents answered trusting, compared with 67% of US respondents. The response may be influenced by the fact that South Korea was the highest-spending country in the world in terms of R&D as a percentage of gross domestic product (4.3% of GDP) in 2019.

The US’s R&D spending is 2.7% by comparison. China invests 2% of its GDP in R&D, but 88% of Chinese participants described themselves as trusting of the role of science.

The majority of South Koreans (64%) described themselves as knowing a little about science; 31% said they know nothing, and 5% said they know a lot. This is in line with Chinese respondents: 69% said they know a little; 24%, nothing; and 7%, a lot. But these figures contrast with those from the US, with 64% of respondents saying they know a little about science; 11%, nothing; and 25%, a lot.

Let’s see how these trends evolve pre- and postpandemic. Increasing the public trust in science is too much of a burden to place on the shoulders of Fauci, but he is not alone. Many scientists are working away from the limelight to develop vaccines and provide solutions for shortages of hand sanitizer, face masks, and ventilators.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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