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America’s Science Corps: Ideas from Thriving Earth Exchange

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya


There have been two great editorials in the last month that, together, call for a community-driven approach to science at a national scale. The first, Science’s New Frontier, describes an American Science Corps that would place as many as 20,000 early career scientists in underserved rural and urban communities. The second, Biden’s Science Challenge, points out how local, listening-based approaches, especially in historically neglected communities, can foster public trust in science. Taken together, the two pieces describe not just a good idea but a potentially powerful way to re-imagine the social contract between science and society. 

 At Thriving Earth Exchange, we’ve launched almost 200 local, listening-based projects and connected over 80 fellows with communities. Along the way, we’ve learned plenty of things that might be useful in designing and launching an American Science Corps:  


Focus on listening, managing, and teaching. Science Corps members will need to be good at sciences, of course, but they need to be even better at listening, facilitating, designing, and teachingCorps members need to be able to interact with a range of community leaders, listen for diverse priorities, build consensus around those priorities, and design science-based projects that address themThey need to be good at building teams and managing projects that demonstrate, concretely, the value of working with science and scientists. Good Science Corps members won’t just complete projectsthey’ll teach community leaders to complete other projects on their own, and they’ll teach scientists to be good partners for those community leaders. These are the factors, along with scientific experience, that should drive the selection and training for Science Corps members. 

Build strong networksTo succeed, Corps members will need to pull in a range of experts, leverage diverse experiences, and draw from a broad range of disciplines. There are places to get this kind of expertise in one shotlocal universities, for examplebut Corps members can also pull together diverse expertise by drawing from multiple national labsscientific and professional societies, and even the private sectorThe program can build strong networks by incentivizing all these groups to participate in the Science Corps through a combination of carrots (tax breaks for pro-bono science work, funding opportunities for community science) and sticks (enhanced broader impacts requirements, lab and university scorecards on community engagement). Communities also need to be part of networks: the Science Corp will be more useful to communities if it also creates opportunities for them to work together, share best practices, and learn from each other. 

Fund communities. Very few communities have extra money lying around, so they will need money they can use to support their participation in Science Corps projects and implement the plans they develop with Corps volunteers. This could support for child-care at community meetings, money to run laboratory samples, or money to purchase and maintain monitoring equipment. Without that budget, Corps outcomes will be limited to reports, plans, and other documents that sit on shelves or languish in offices, and the net effect will be to undermine, not enhance, public support in science.  

Avoid topdown agendas. It will be tempting to use the Science Corps to advance national priorities like climate solutions, vaccination, or science literacyWhile these may be worthy goals, they are not necessarily the right goals for every community. To keep the focus on community priorities and impacts, the Science Corps should aim only to use science to do good, leaving it up to the communities to figure out what good looks like, in their context, with their people and for their aspirations. Trust community wisdom to know the most important science-related questions and provide support for local leaders to address local priorities. 

Build grassroots research agendas. Every community is unique, and the job of the Science Corps member needs to focus on the science that meets their communities’ unique needs. At the same time, commonalities will emerge, and those commonalities should be used to guide national-scale investment in scienceGiven historic and systemic barriers that prevent communities from weighing in on scientific questions and research prioritiesthe Science Corps should also create ways for rural communities, communities with less wealth and Indigenous synthesize and elevate their shared research priorities. 

Engage small business. Helping communities connect to, use and influence science in practical ways represents an economic opportunity, and a public-private approach to the Science Corps can accelerate that growthInstead of focusing on large companies, which often cater to the most profitable or familiar parts of the market and leave BIPOC and rural communities underserved, the Science Corps should seek to engage small businesses with a local focus, who can help communities leverage science to advance priorities related to climate, energy, public health or other topics while fostering minority or woman-owned entrepreneurial ventures.  

Support the early leaders. There are organizations, including but definitely not limited to Thriving Earth Exchange, that are doing this work alreadyWe would love to contribute to something bigger. The federal government could build on all our work by setting clear goals and metrics, investing in us, asking for our guidance in setting up new programsfostering communication across all our programs, and elevating successful strategies. This will allow the federal program to launch faster and contribute to the long-term capacity for this work outside the federal government 

What all these ideas share, really, is a foundation of community science. It’s about community priorities, local impact, science with humility, the right of all communities to ask and answer scientific questions and designing science for both discovery and impact. The Science Corps can take community science to scale. As such, the Science Corps is a great idea, not just for what it does for the communities and the scientists involved, but because it has the potential to help us improve the connections between science and society in ways that reframe the social contract between science and society. 

mgoodwin editor

1 Comment

Patricia IwasakiMay 18, 2021 at 11:40 AM

Please consider launching community stories as a true “listening” mechanism–community science story-telling. Raj, you’d be great to kick this off, something comforting for folks to hear–a compelling voice, literally to hear people’s voices encouraging you on! Americana-izing our scientific communities through sound stories (literally and figuratively).

Would love being a “voice” in this!

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