The Swedish Approach to Science

© Nobel Media AB 2015. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

Matt Motta (@matt_motta) received his PhD in political science from the University of Minnesota in Spring 2018. In Summer 2018, he will begin working as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (and will be based at Yale University). Matt’s research focuses on understanding why Americans have lost faith in science, and how that trust can be restored. His research has been published in academic outlets like Nature Climate Change and American Politics Research, and in popular press outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. Matt studied abroad with The Swedish Program in Fall 2011.

Although I was only there for one semester, my time in Sweden with The Swedish Program has played an important role in my development as a scholar. My time abroad not only helped inform my academic research interests, but provided me with the skills necessary for collaborating with researchers around the globe. In this post, I wanted to expand a bit on what I learned during my time in Sweden.

My academic research primarily concerns the American public’s attitudes toward science. Why do some Americans reject scientific consensus on issues like climate change? And what can we (scientists, educators, and concerned citizens) do to restore faith in scientific research? Studying abroad in Stockholm not only helped shape my initial interest in this topic, but continues informs how I think about improving public trust in science to this day.

In Sweden, I was struck by Swedes’ appreciation for scientists and the research they produce. In the program’s comparative public policy course, for example, we frequently talked about Swedes’ relatively strong willingness to defer to scientific experts on issues like climate change. Indeed, a widely cited Gallup poll conducted only a few months after I left Stockholm found that while 47% of Americans reject scientific consensus on climate change, only about 9% of Swedes do the same.

I also had the opportunity to observe Swedes’ appreciation of science outside of the classroom. Following the pageantry of the Nobel ceremony in the daily papers (and catching a quick glimpse of the ceremony from outside Nobelhuset), I learned that science plays an important role in Swedish public life. Swedes don’t just trust scientists and scientific institutions – they celebrate them.

This experience helped me realize that most previous academic research on Americans’ acceptance of scientific consensus was missing an important component – their attitudes toward the people doing scientific research. In my work, I have shown that Americans’ trust in scientists and academics (as people) has soured in recent years, and demonstrated that this negativity influences their acceptance of consensus on issues like climate change, vaccine safety, and nuclear power.

Studying abroad with The Swedish Program has also provided me with valuable skills necessary for fostering cross-national collaboration. Whether striking up conversations about Scandinavian pop culture, or being able to (roughly) estimate research budgets in Swedish Kroner when talking with colleagues at international conferences, spending time abroad has given me a useful and highly-personalized context for collaborating with colleagues across the globe. In my time in graduate school, I have used these skills to collaborate with Scandinavian scholars to study several aspects of cross-national opinion (e.g., this piece in the The Washington Post, and this piece on Danish television program Detektor).

My time with the Swedish Program has made me a better scholar. By learning how Swedes think about science, I have gained a better understand of why many Americans reject it. Most importantly, experiencing day-to-day life in Stockholm has made me a more effective collaborator, and a better colleague.

Check out photos from Matt’s semester with The Swedish Program: