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Maintaining trust in science is crucial to public health. Here’s how the biopharma industry can help

December 15, 2021

Republished with permission from STAT. This article originally appeared on December 10, 2021 here.

Against declining trust in traditional news sources and institutions that provide data and information, the results of a new poll are both gratifying and a call to action for everyone working in the sciences.

The global public opinion poll, sponsored by the London-based Wellcome Trust, found that 80% of people in 113 countries trusted science either “a lot” or “some,” and 76% felt the same way about scientists. The survey of 119,000 people was conducted by Gallup between August 2020 and February 2021, before the widespread distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

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Authored by Andy Plump, President of Research & Development at Takeda

These findings are incredibly important, as trust is the foundation for the legitimacy of public institutions, including a functioning health care system. Trust is particularly crucial for maintaining public support for biopharmaceutical research and development. Trust has also been essential in the world’s collective ability to respond rapidly during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it continues to underpin both private- and public-sector planning and execution of programs to aid in the recovery and ongoing management of a “new normal” way of life.

The incremental progress being made by the biopharmaceutical industry — and more specifically biopharma R&D — to improve public health tends to fly under the radar. And while this progress is meaningful, the industry still has work to do to translate and sustain the gains it has made for science and scientists working on new therapies and vaccines, and the health care ecosystem overall.

How can the biopharmaceutical industry make headway? Here are some steps I believe it must take to maintain and grow public trust:

  • Continue to do great work discovering, innovating, and refining treatments to save, extend, and improve lives.
  • Make it clear that the life-saving vaccines developed for Covid-19 are typical of the science that companies from two-person startups to large global companies do every day.
  • Reach groups that are most skeptical of health care institutions by including a greater diversity of voices in communications. Representation and equity are essential to having messages about science and drug development heard and believed.
  • Be transparent. Although scientists often believe that expressing uncertainty undermines their message, recent research has found that “transparently communicating scientific uncertainty” about contested facts does not necessarily undermine public trust in science.
  • Be a patient-first industry. Companies must partner with patients, patient organizations, caregivers, and other key stakeholders to understand the burden of disease and unmet needs, and address them through innovative and life-changing medicines.

One piece of the Wellcome Trust data I found especially interesting is that the biggest shift in attitudes was among those who indicated they knew “some” or “not much/nothing at all” about science in the years leading up to the poll. It was this group that demonstrated the greatest expansion of trust after a year of increased and ongoing communication from scientists and health care professionals regarding Covid-19. This underscores the need to keep up this cadence of communication.

As a scientist, it was also encouraging to see that science generated far more public trust (76%) than other key institutions, including one’s own government (58%) or the media (57%). Within the category of health professions, only doctors and nurses enjoyed a higher level of global trust among those polled (83%), undoubtedly reflecting the trust people feel for those they know personally and who provide essential care.

The news is encouraging and is something the biopharma industry should be proud of. But it also shouldn’t rest on its laurels. We must continue to build on this foundation of trust in the future by continuing to focus on and serve patients. Without public trust in science and in our industry, the industry can’t effectively fulfill its mission to help people live healthier lives and contribute to the overall safety and well-being of society.

Andy Plump, a physician-scientist, is the president of research and development for Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited and serves as a member of the company’s board of directors.