Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Trust in America: In the age of COVID-19, do Americans trust science?

The coronavirus pandemic has put scientists and their work in a public spotlight unlike anything seen in decades. Our researchers discuss how Americans’ confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest has changed since the pandemic began and the impact trust has on views of the virus. They also examine some of the reasons why people have or have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and some of the demographic differences in vaccination status.

More Trust in America videos


[Intro] Trust in America, in institutions, in each other is essential to the functioning of U.S. democracy. Yet today, trust is declining. So what impact does this have on American society? In this episode, Cary Funk and Alec Tyson help explain trust in scientists and views of COVID-19 vaccines.

[Cary Funk] The coronavirus pandemic is really at the front of all of our minds. And one of the things it’s done is put scientists and their work really in a public spotlight unlike anything we’ve seen for decades.

[Alec Tyson] We’ve seen that scientists and medical scientists, these are groups that are held in pretty high regard by the public. Large majorities say they have either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in them to do the right thing to act in the public’s best interest, but we’ve even seen change during the coronavirus outbreak in these views.

[Cary Funk] And what we’re seeing so far is that public confidence has ticked up, but there’s a big caveat to that and that the uptake has not been uniform across Americans. We’re seeing primarily Democrats have a growing sense of confidence in scientists to act in the best interest of the public whereas Republicans have stayed about the same. So as a result of that, what we’re seeing is a growing political divide between Democrats and Republicans over their levels of trust in scientists. Public trust in scientists has been a key indicator of public support, but it’s also something public health experts talk a lot about. And they’re talking about the importance of trust in connection with public acceptance and really adherence to best practices for mitigating the spread of disease. And we’ve seen that in Center surveys as well. We’re seeing that public trust in the vaccine research and development process is going hand in hand with people’s intention to get a coronavirus vaccine.

[Alec Tyson] Our data from August 2021 finds a majority of Americans say they’ve received a vaccine for COVID-19. And there’s more than one factor at play here when it comes to the decision to get vaccinated. Some of the bigger factors are personal concern if you think you’re really worried about getting a bad case of the coronavirus, you’re much more inclined to be vaccinated. Trust in the research and development process, a sense that you believe that the vaccines are safe and effective is highly correlated with the decision to get vaccinated, and there even dynamics around your own personal practices or experiences with other vaccines, namely the common flu shot. If you typically get a flu shot, you’re much more likely to be vaccinated for COVID-19 than folks who don’t typically receive a flu shot. We know that the coronavirus outbreak has had a disproportionate impact on different communities, whether that’s by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, or by job status. And we do see significant differences across demographic groups when it comes to getting vaccinated for COVID-19. The oldest adults, those 65 and older, they’re at highest risk of a serious case. And they’re much more likely than younger adults to say they’ve received a vaccine for COVID-19. We also see differences by community type. Those living in rural areas are somewhat less likely than those living in suburban or urban areas to say they’ve received a vaccine for the coronavirus. And while earlier in the outbreak, Black Americans were a bit less likely than White or Hispanic Americans to say they had or intended to get a vaccine, we’ve seen a change here. We now find that comparable majorities of Black, White and Hispanic Americans say they’ve received a vaccine for COVID-19, and that’s something that we’ve seen change or evolve over the course of the outbreak. Now one difference that remains as wide as ever is by partisanship. We find that Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say they received a vaccine for COVID-19, and this gap is as big or wider than at any point during the course of the outbreak.

[Cary Funk] What’s really important to keep in mind is how quickly we’ve seen public opinion shift over time, and people’s intention to get a coronavirus vaccine is just one example of that, where we’ve seen really fairly fast moving changes in public opinion. The question going forward is how much does people’s experience with the coronavirus influence how people think about the scientific enterprise generally?

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information