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Call for renewed focus, more funding in STEM equity

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Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is the highest it has been in three years, with industry leaders calling for renewed focus and more funding in scientific research.

This is according to the State of Science Index, conducted by health-tech solutions firm 3M, among a general population of 1 000 adults in 14 countries, including SA.

The study, which tracks attitudes towards science and related fields, was conducted before and during the pandemic found that a world that has been increasingly sceptical of science seems to be waking up to its relevance and importance in 2020.

It notes that COVID-19 has made people more sensitive to and appreciative of what science can do, as it is expected to lead the way in solving the world’s biggest challenges.

According to the index, in 2020, rising scepticism reversed for the first time in three years: 89% of those surveyed trust science, 86% trust scientists and more than half (54%) stated science is very important to their everyday lives.

People who previously stated, “I am sceptical of science” dropped by seven points to 28% during the pandemic, from its high of 35% last year. Relatedly, respondents who only believe in aspects of science that align with their personal beliefs is down six percentage points from when the study was first run in 2018.

A renewed trust in science appears to translate into taking action too, according to the report: more than half of those surveyed (54%) agree COVID-19 has made them more likely to advocate for science; 77% are more likely as a result of the pandemic to agree that science needs more funding; and 92% of global respondents believe actions should follow science to contain the global pandemic, revealing another measure of trust in science.

“As people face the most challenging health crisis in our lifetime, science is more relevant, more trusted, and more important to people all over the world,” says Mike Roman, chairman of the board and CEO of 3M.

“Advocating for science is important to 3M, but it’s bigger than just us. We’re leaning in with a focus on the things people care most about: pandemic preparedness, sustainability, social justice and STEM equity. The State of Science Index shows that people want and expect science to make lives better and these are important issues that are at the heart of 3M’s vision to improve every life.”

Science, sustainability, social justice

3M calls for renewed focus on STEM equity and multi-disciplinary collaboration, as sustainable solutions remain critical to help solve the world’s greatest challenges.

The pandemic has uncovered perceived gaps in science leadership around the world, but it has also revealed opportunities to make a difference, notes the study.

A vast majority of survey respondents around the world believe governments need to lead the way -- 86% say governments should be more involved in containing the spread of COVID-19. In the same way, they also look to governments to address challenges such as affordable healthcare (86%), food safety (86%), improving air quality (85%) and ocean plastics pollution (84%).

While governments are deemed the single most responsible organisation, a combination of non-government entities emerge as viable partners (corporations, non-profits and individual citizens) to help address challenges like climate change (48% non-government vs 52% government). For racial inequality, respondents are split 52% non-government vs 48% government; and for equal access to STEM education for under-represented minority groups, the split is 38% for non-government vs 62% for government.

As a result of the pandemic, pro-STEM sentiment is even stronger: today, 74% are more likely to believe the world needs more people pursuing STEM-related careers to benefit society, while 73% are more likely to believe a strong STEM education is crucial for students.

“We’ve learned from this year’s study and from previous years that people want and need science to solve global challenges,” says Dr Jayshree Seth, corporate scientist and chief science advocate at 3M.

“It has never been more important to enable bright, motivated students from all walks of life to reach their full potential and achieve their dreams through careers in STEM. Attracting the next generation of scientists starts with access to education and motivating students to pursue STEM. The science community – and therefore the world – will only benefit from a greater diversity of talent across gender, racial and ethnic lines.”

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