Less in Singapore than the rest of the world, despite being a highly-developed small country that bucked the pre- and post-pandemic trends in 3M’s study.

Around the world, the image of science is on the rise, but science advocates are still needed in Singapore due to persisting skepticism of the topic.

This was among the key findings that global science company 3M’s State of Science Index (SOSI) has drawn from its research.

The SOSI, having been conducted before and during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, provides a snapshot of shifts in public perceptions of how science has benefited them. The pre-pandemic and pandemic ‘pulse surveys’ involved more than 14,000 people across 14 countries, and more than 11,000 people across 11 countries respectively.

Consistent skepticism in SG

In Singapore, both surveys involved about 1,000 respondents, and revealed that 91% of Singaporeans trusted in science (up 4 points vs. pre-pandemic) and 84% trusted in scientists (up 7 points vs. pre-pandemic). Science skepticism stayed consistent over the past two waves of SOSI (34%, same as pre-pandemic vs 28%, down 7 points from pre-pandemic figures globally).

Some 60% of Singaporeans were also more likely to advocate for science as a result of the pandemic, but only few were advocates to begin with as pre-pandemic, just 15% of Singaporeans said they stood up for science when debating its merits. This was lower than the 20% globally average.  

The study highlights four themes in the areas of Image of Science; Sustainability; STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Equity; and Leadership and Responsibility.

Staid panel discussion

During a virtual 3M State of Science Virtual Panel Discussion 2020 to discuss survey findings and related challenges, approximately 50 attendees participated in the virtual discussion and were invited to identify bridges for these gaps.

Said 3M’s Managing Director, Kevin McGuigan: “Following the COVID-19 pandemic, science has been brought to the forefront of globally-discussed topics. This third edition of the 3M SOSI has shed much insights on the perception of science. 3M remains committed to our collaboration with Science Centre Singapore to explore how we can remove barriers to STEM, renew our commitment to collaborative solutions, and reinforce demand for science-based, sustainable solutions.”

According to Singapore’s Science Centre’s Chief Executive, Associate Prof Lim Tit Meng: “We have all witnessed the crucial role STEM has played in helping tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The importance of STEM education is further underscored by the research findings from this year’s 3M State of Science Index, which depicts how societies around the world have adopted STEM disciplines. It is heartening to see the growing trust in science and scientists, and Science Centre Singapore along with its partners will endeavor to drive greater understanding, to chart a path towards building a better and brighter tomorrow.”

DigiconAsia was attended the online discussion but found that the proceedings were highly scripted and seemed to follow public relations protocols more than a true spirit of discovery.

Trust vs Perception of Science

Let us venture a guess at why Singapore showed high skepticism despite its peoples’ strong showing at Science research and academic competitions. The chart here shows that almost half of the people take science for granted, presumably too busy trying to make ends meet to think about the impact of science.

With 53% of people in general believing that their lives would not be much different if science did not exist, the ignorance factor has to be reconciled with some other factors that created impressions during the pandemic.

Here are some broad issues that have not helped to improve the perceptions of science well:

  • 17 years of complacent ‘preparedness’
    The pandemic brought to light how the ‘valuable lessons’ gleaned from the then-earthshaking SARs crisis in 2003 had—over 17 years of supposed pandemic readiness—led to disastrous outcomes globally within just one year. The developed world now has to be coerced to practice basic social hygiene.
  • World Helpless Organisation
    As a leader of global science, the WHO was perceived by over a million people (via petitions and social media feedback) to have squandered precious time hesitating over major decisions that could have prevented governmental complacencies and delays in many countries.
  • Science vs Science
    The pandemic showed us how science, represented globally by top researchers, ended up in a mess of conflicting scientific opinions that continually divided the globe when deciding on containment efforts. This led to resurgences in many countries.
  • Singapore’s Decision #1
    In Singapore, the contentious issue of discouraging the rampant use of face masks led to highly-undesirable outcomes. This occurred despite various pleas by experts of science (consultant doctors and specialists) with empirical and anecdotal evidence. Shortly afterwards, the massive numbers of dormitory infections proved them right.
  • Singapore’s Decision #2
    Also in Singapore, the pandemic showed how pragmatic governance used science to achieve tight infection control among the local population, but the issue of housing migrant workers exploded—arguably due to conscience issues. What is science without conscience?
  • Prisoner of global politics and profits
    In Singapore, logistics and other considerations were cited as the reasons behind the arguable decisions behind not mandating the early use of masks (with political considerations playing a part). On a global scale, this mirrors the fact the ethical practice of science is very much subject to politics, profits and commerce
Picture credit: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
  • Unnecessary deaths and post-recovery worries
    Millions of unnecessary deaths and possibly many more unpredictable complications arising from post-recovery cases (such as blood clots, lung function weakness and a myriad of brain and cognitive ailments) constitute a legacy that medical science will still need to address, when the world is less distracted by vaccine pursuits.
  • Too many scientists spoil the soup
    The pandemic has shown not that science has no answers, but that too many ‘answers’ (i.e., expert opinions) can lead to conflict, obfuscation, confusion and ultimately, wrong decisions due to cherry-picking by world leaders.
  • Science is nothing without Conscience
    While some countries are concerned about science education per se, the pandemic is already proving that science cannot be properly and optimally applied without conscience, ethics, morals and accountability. These lessons were supposed to have been learned after the SARS crisis, but anthropological evidence indicates that science education has to be balanced with a holistic overview of the humanities and related disciplines.
  • Warming up with science
    Global warming and climate change are also a testament to the double-edged sword of science.
    In our relentless pursuit of ‘progress’, we have applied science well, but have forgotten our place in the bigger scheme of the Universe. If fire is a good servant and a bad master, what less is science?
  • Science without humility
    Throughout the course of the pandemic, multiple practitioners of so-called pseudo-science; bad science, fringe science and alternative health therapies came to prominence on social media platforms. This created confusion and conflicts that ripped many societies apart. However, many people came away realizing that mainstream science does not know everything; while not all non-mainstream sciences can be discounted during a global crisis.
  • Perceptions of violent science
    More than any incident in recent memory, the pandemic showed people who otherwise shied away from science, that violent science (biological and nuclear warfare, among many others) can and continue to be practiced by governments on the pretext of defense.
  • In science we trust, or else
    Finally, many ugly acts against humanity were witnesses against practitioners of science trying to expose certain ‘truths’. Meanwhile, the science of statistics manipulation led to many fake news releases about pandemic and death numbers. Laypeople have no choice other than to “trust in science” but in the hidden recesses of their minds, they now perceive science to be vulnerable to abuse and manipulation, even if they do not dare to express the skepticism.

The opinions expressed here may sound blunt and grating, and run counter to what some countries choose to practice, but they are laid out here for administrators and ambassadors of science to digest … in the brave new world that awaits us after this pandemic (and the many other global crises expected to follow)

Truth will keep on telling the truth
Lies will lie to be more uncouth
No more rainbow after the storm
Nowhere to escape leaving the norm

Munia Khan (poet, writer)