MONTREAL -- The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled science into the headlines, and for good reason. Here and around the world, science has been—and remains—among our best allies to tackle this major health crisis. At the very first signs of the pandemic, the scientific community stepped up to demystify the virus, develop treatment options and vaccines and propose the best means to curb the spread. Why did governments, journalists and the public all turn toward scientific experts to better understand the situation? Because they trust science.

This is clear from the results of two surveys by research firm SOM conducted in December 2019 and July 2020 for the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ) to assess Quebecers’ trust and interest in science. The July 2020 survey also provided the opportunity to determine the effect of the pandemic on the variables. 

In July 2020, 84 per cent of survey respondents affirmed that they were very or somewhat confident in science versus 81 per cent in December 2019. The controversies covered by large media outlets, which were nevertheless part of the scientific approach, did not undermine public confidence in the least. Would seeing more of our scientists in the public sphere further build this trust? I believe so. One thing is certain: 82 per cent of respondents to the December 2019 survey think that scientists are not present enough in traditional and social media outlets, and the vast majority (93 per cent) want scientific experts to invest more effort in sharing their work with the public.

Quebec is very fortunate to count on science journalists who do a remarkable job of making scientific findings more accessible. Still, the greater involvement of scientists in the public sphere would counterbalance the misinformation and fake news being circulated, especially on social networks. Exposure to science from people who practice it can create greater interest and a better understanding of the science world. This is why I encourage researchers to engage in more outreach and share aspects of their work, including their projects, findings and approaches. Spearheaded by the FRQ, the DIALOGUE program provides the scientific community with the means to communicate and interact with the public.

Making a hands-on contribution to a research project is one way to increase interest in science. To that end, the July survey sought to assess knowledge and curiosity in connection with participatory science. Though the results indicate that the public is largely unfamiliar with participatory science, five out of ten respondents said that they see value in taking part in it, especially as a means to contribute to the wellbeing of the planet and its people. Convinced that citizen participation in research yields many benefits, the FRQ launched the ENGAGEMENT program to urge citizens to commit to a research initiative.

Last spring, many people contributed to the tremendously successful Des oiseaux à la maison [Birds at Home] initiative. Created by QuébecOiseaux with the support of the FRQ, the program invited participants to discover birds in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 800 Quebecers from across the province found out more about how science is built, based on rigorous observations reviewed by peers, as well as the ways data may be interpreted and used. These learnings, which came out of the pandemic, certainly suggest a real enthusiasm for science—and birds!

Art has also proven to be a powerful gateway, as a way to approach science to better understand and appreciate it. This is the very reason why the FRQ have pledged their support to the #CovidartQc movement in which artists in seven municipalities will produce works of urban art in connection with COVID-19 and the issues raised by the pandemic in collaboration with scientists and local citizens.

In the depths of the health crisis, Premier Francois Legault often acknowledged that he relied on scientific advice from public health experts in his decision-making processes, and nine out of ten Quebecers who responded to the July survey believe that was the right thing to do. Even before the pandemic, in the December survey, an equally significant number affirmed that our government leaders must take scientific expertise into account when making decisions. It is also important to note that 95 per cent of respondents to both surveys completely or mostly agree with the statement that science can help tackle the major challenges facing society, including population aging, climate change and even the next pandemic.

We can certainly rely on science in all circumstances. The vaccines that constitute the ultimate solution to the pandemic will emerge from a research laboratory, and the post-pandemic economic recovery will also look to research to overcome this wholly exceptional collective experience. 

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Quebec