Republicans’ confidence in medical scientists down sharply since early in the coronavirus outbreak

Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand how much confidence Americans have in groups and institutions in society, including scientists and medical scientists. We surveyed 14,497 U.S. adults from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, 2021.

The survey was conducted on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP) and included an oversample of Black and Hispanic adults from the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. A total of 3,042 Black adults (single-race, not Hispanic) and 3,716 Hispanic adults were sampled.

Respondents on both panels are recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

This is made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Americans’ confidence in groups and institutions has turned downward compared with just a year ago. Trust in scientists and medical scientists, once seemingly buoyed by their central role in addressing the coronavirus outbreak, is now below pre-pandemic levels.

Chart shows public confidence in scientists and medical scientists has declined over the last year

Overall, 29% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 40% who said this in November 2020. Similarly, the share with a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests is down by 10 percentage points (from 39% to 29%), according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The new findings represent a shift in the recent trajectory of attitudes toward medical scientists and scientists. Public confidence in both groups had increased shortly after the start of the coronavirus outbreak, according to an April 2020 survey. Current ratings of medical scientists and scientists have now fallen below where they were in January 2019, before the emergence of the coronavirus.

Scientists and medical scientists are not the only groups and institutions to see their confidence ratings decline in the last year. The share of Americans who say they have a great deal of confidence in the military to act in the public’s best interests has fallen 14 points, from 39% in November 2020 to 25% in the current survey. And the shares of Americans with a great deal of confidence in K-12 public school principals and police officers have also decreased (by 7 and 6 points, respectively).

Large majorities of Americans continue to have at least a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists (78%) and scientists (77%) to act in the public’s best interests. These ratings place them at the top of the list of nine groups and institutions included in the survey. A large majority of Americans (74%) also express at least a fair amount of confidence in the military to act in the public’s best interests. Roughly two-thirds say this about police officers (69%) and K-12 public school principals (64%), while 55% have at least a fair amount of confidence in religious leaders.

The public continues to express lower levels of confidence in journalists, business leaders and elected officials, though even for these groups, public confidence is tilting more negative. Four-in-ten say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in journalists and business leaders to act in the public’s best interests; six-in-ten now say they have not too much or no confidence at all in these groups. Ratings for elected officials are especially negative: 24% say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in elected officials, compared with 76% who say they have not too much or no confidence in them.

The survey was fielded Nov. 30 through Dec. 12, 2021, among 14,497 U.S. adults, as the omicron variant of the coronavirus was first detected in the United States – nearly two years since the coronavirus outbreak took hold. Recent surveys this year have found declining ratings for how President Joe Biden has handled the coronavirus outbreak as well as lower ratings for his job performance – and that of Congress – generally.

Partisan differences over trust in medical scientists, scientists continue to widen since the coronavirus outbreak

Democrats remain more likely than Republicans to express confidence in medical scientists and scientists to act in the public’s best interests.

Chart shows Democrats remain more confident than Republicans in medical scientists; ratings fall among both groups

However, there has been a significant decline in public confidence in medical scientists and scientists among both partisan groups.

Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, nine-in-ten express either a great deal (44%) or a fair amount (46%) of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public’s best interests. However, the share expressing strong confidence in medical scientists has fallen 10 points since November 2020.

There has been a similar decline in the share of Democrats holding the strongest level of confidence in scientists since November 2020. (Half of the survey respondents were asked about their confidence in “medical scientists,” while the other half were asked about “scientists.”)

Still, ratings for medical scientists, along with those for scientists, remain more positive than those for other groups in the eyes of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party. None of the other groups rated on the survey garner as much confidence; the closest contenders are public school principals and the military. About three-quarters (76%) of Democrats and Democratic leaners have at least a fair amount of confidence in public school principals; 68% say the same about the military.

There has been a steady decline in confidence in medical scientists among Republicans and Republican leaners since April 2020. In the latest survey, just 15% have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists, down from 31% who said this in April 2020 and 26% who said this in November 2020. There has been a parallel increase in the share of Republicans holding negative views of medical scientists, with 34% now saying they have not too much or no confidence at all in medical scientists to act in the public’s best interests – nearly three times higher than in January 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak.

Republicans’ views of scientists have followed a similar trajectory. Just 13% have a great deal of confidence in scientists, down from a high of 27% in January 2019 and April 2020. The share with negative views has doubled over this time period; 36% say they have not too much or no confidence at all in scientists in the latest survey.

Republicans’ confidence in other groups and institutions has also declined since the pandemic took hold. The share of Republicans with at least a fair amount of confidence in public school principals is down 27 points since April 2020. Views of elected officials, already at low levels, declined further; 15% of Republicans have at least a fair amount of confidence in elected officials to act in the public’s best interests, down from 37% in April 2020.

Race and ethnicity, education, partisan affiliation each shape confidence in medical scientists

People’s assessments of scientists and medical scientists are tied to several factors, including race and ethnicity as well as levels of education and partisan affiliation.

Chart shows confidence in medical scientists declines among White, Black and Hispanic adults since April 2020

Looking across racial and ethnic groups, confidence in medical scientists declined at least modestly among White and Black adults over the past year. The decline was especially pronounced among White adults.

There is now little difference between how White, Black and Hispanic adults see medical scientists. This marks a shift from previous Pew Research Center surveys, where White adults were more likely than Black adults to express high levels of confidence in medical scientists.

Among White adults, the share with a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public has declined from 43% to 29% over the past year. Ratings are now lower than they were in January 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

Among Black adults, 28% say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public’s best interests, down slightly from November 2020 (33%).

The share of Hispanic adults with a strong level of trust in medical scientists is similar to the share who expressed the same level of trust in November 2020, although the current share is 16 points lower than it was in April 2020 (29% vs 45%), shortly after measures to address the coronavirus outbreak began. Ratings of medical scientists among Hispanic adults continue to be lower than they were before the coronavirus outbreak. In January 2019, 37% of Hispanic adults said they had a great deal of confidence in medical scientists.

While the shares of White, Black and Hispanic adults who express a great deal of confidence in medical scientists have declined since the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., majorities of these groups continue to express at least a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists, and the ratings for medical scientists compare favorably with those of other groups and institutions rated in the survey.

Chart shows White Democrats express higher levels of confidence in medical scientists than Black, Hispanic Democrats

Confidence in scientists tends to track closely with confidence in medical scientists. Majorities of White, Black and Hispanic adults have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists. And the shares with this view continue to rank at or above those for other groups and institutions. For more on confidence in scientists over time among White, Black and Hispanic adults, see the Appendix.

Confidence in medical scientists and scientists across racial and ethnic groups plays out differently for Democrats and Republicans.

White Democrats (52%) are more likely than Hispanic (36%) and Black (30%) Democrats to say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public’s best interests. However, large majorities of all three groups say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, 14% of White adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists, while 52% say they have a fair amount of confidence. Views among Hispanic Republicans are very similar to those of White Republicans, in contrast to differences seen among Democrats.

There are similar patterns in confidence in scientists. (However, the sample size for Black Republicans in the survey is too small to analyze on these measures.) See the Appendix for more.

Americans with higher levels of education express more positive views of scientists and medical scientists than those with lower levels of education, as has also been the case in past Center surveys. But education matters more in assessments by Democrats than Republicans.

Chart shows college-educated Democrats express high levels of confidence in medical scientists

Democrats and Democratic leaners with at least a college degree express a high level of confidence in medical scientists: 54% have a great deal of confidence and 95% have at least a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public’s interests. By comparison, a smaller share of Democrats who have not graduated from college have confidence in medical scientists.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, college graduates are 9 points more likely than those with some college experience or less education to express a great deal of confidence in medical scientists (21% vs. 12%).

There is a similar difference between those with higher and lower education levels among Democrats when it comes to confidence in scientists. Among Republicans, differences by education are less pronounced; there is no significant difference by education level in the shares holding the strongest level of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s interests. See the Appendix for details.