Once upon a time, America was all about science. Since the excitement of the 50s and 60s – winning the space race and landing on the moon – however, there’s no doubt been a decline in the public’s interest and trust in the scientific community.
Today’s guests on the L.A. Weekly Weekly Podcast aim to change that, with the formation of an American Science Corps. Co-founders Dr. Aaron F. Mertz and Dr. Abhilash Mishra sit down with host Brian Calle to shed some insight on their plan to make the scientific community more inclusive to all.
“Over the past year, Abhilash and I have been exploring how we can make science and technology more inclusive, and how we can increase public trust in science. The big idea is to start a Peace Corps, but for science in America. It’s called the American Science Corps, or ASC for short,” introduces co-founder Doctor Aaron F. Mertz, the Director of Science and Society Program at The Aspen Institute.
“We envision it as a government-administered, government-funded program that would employ thousands of early-career scientists in underserved urban and rural communities across America,” he continues. “The big goal is to elevate science as a central part of American culture. I think during the earlier eras in American history when science was that way – think of Sputnik, the space race – a lot of this period rallied people behind curiosity for science.”
How would ASC accomplish this task?
“We believe that the ASC service members would design and implement community-based initiatives that improve public participation in the scientific process, would increase public trust in science, and help invigorate our country’s competitiveness in innovation and technology,” answers Mertz.
The founders explain that ASC has two goals. One of which is for scientists to go into spaces that they’ve traditionally shied away from.
“Think of places of worship, state and county fairs, farmer’s markets and town halls – where they could actually go and conduct hands-on civic science workshops that allow them to build public trust in science outside of a traditional university setting,” says co-founder Dr. Abhilash Mishra, Executive Director, Xu Initiative on Science, Technology, and Global Development at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
The second goal? To have the ASC service members be deployed for re-skilling and lifelong learning of Americans who haven’t had the opportunity to go to college, or haven’t had an opportunity to study science or understand the subject deeply in high school but need to re-skill to remain competitive in a technology-driven economy.
“Imagine having the ASC members running boot camps in rural communities and low-income communities. We believe that we need to be able to deploy that kind of talent, that skill, to be able to achieve re-skilling and lifelong learning, and I think the ASC is one way of doing that,” says Mishra.
Both Mishra and Mertz stress the importance of these conversations taking place outside of the normal “comfort zones” of scientists.
“Areas where scientists usually don’t go? That’s actually where they can get to reach people that don’t get to [typically] interact with science or scientists,” adds Mertz.
How did the two founders meet to create this ambitious project? Twelve years ago when they were both studying at the University of Oxford as Rhodes scholars. They both went on to get doctoral degrees in physics.
“Even back then we were both very interested in how to get more members of the public involved in the process of science, even though we were fully engaged in our lab work at the time,” details Mertz.
“I got my Ph.D. in astrophysics at Caltech in L.A., and I was very interested in using astronomy as a tool to spark scientific curiosity among non-scientists. I was always thinking about how we can bring more people into science and engineering and I realized that a traditional academic career would not allow me to do that kind of work, so alongside my Ph.D. I founded and led a STEM education program in India where I grew up,” explains Mishra.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
“That experience really gave me a front-seat view of how faulty policy can prevent a lot of people from entering into science,” he says.
Like Mishra, Mertz made the leap from the laboratory to full-time work in science outreach and science engagement as a director at the Aspen Institute.
Why do the two so firmly believe that public trust in science has eroded?
“One of the trends that is driving this distrust is the exclusion of the vast majority of Americans from elite scientific institutions,” says Mishra. “So even though American universities and technology companies have become global leaders in innovation, they have also, over the past forty years, become extremely exclusive.”
For example, at the top 10 to 20 Ivy League or Ivy League-adjacent universities, the number of people who come from the top 1% of income distribution is larger than the number of students who come from the bottom 50%, explain our guests.
“The inequality in these institutions is just massive,” says Mishra. “When you have this kind of dissociation of vast segments of the population which is unable to access opportunities, unable to access avenues, unable to interact with scientists, you would see a natural distrust in science emerging.”
Speaking of the diploma divide and the disassociation from the scientific process, the founders believe that the formation of an American Science Corps (ACS) can begin to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public. To learn more about ASC’s vision for the role science should play in American culture in the coming years, listen to the podcast here: Spotify, Apple Podcasts or at Cumulus Los Angeles. ❖
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, a science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019, which endeavors to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges and to foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory. Previously, Mertz was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow in stem cell and tissue biology at Rockefeller University. He has held leadership roles in advocacy for women and LGBTQ+ people in STEM fields. A term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Mertz earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Washington University in St. Louis; a master’s degree in the history of science, medicine, and technology from the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar; and a doctorate in physics from Yale University.
Abhilash Mishra is a scientist, entrepreneur, and educator working on problems at the intersection of technological innovation and social inequality. Abhilash is the founding director of the Xu Initiative on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. He is also the founder of EquiTech Futures, a talent incubator and research lab for inclusive innovation. In his work, Abhilash combines tools and insights from computing, data science, economics, and behavioral science to develop solutions that can make scientific and technological innovation more equitable and inclusive. His policy work includes designing programs that can improve STEM education outcomes among underserved students, a proposal for American Science Corps to bolster public trust in science and technology, and developing technology re-skilling programs for young adults. Abhilash is trained as a physicist. He holds a masters degree in physics from the University of Oxford where he was a Rhodes scholar and a doctorate in astrophysics from Caltech.