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COVID-19

Building trust in science requires more than just funding

The costs of anti-science sentiment in the United States have become magnified in the past year. The inability of scientists to convince the American public about the reality of COVID-19, the effectiveness of masks, and the safety of vaccines has led to loss of life and has decreased the possibility that the pandemic will end soon. We’ve seen the same problem of persuasion with the realities of climate change. Although many remedies have been proposed to combat this, the events of 2020 make clear that none of what we have been doing has worked. We need some new ideas. In an editorial this week, Aaron Mertz and Abhilash Mishra propose that one solution would be for the United States to launch an American Science Corps that would pay recent Ph.D.’s to fan out across the country and—armed with training in communications from appropriate experts—begin to build trust for science in the broader public.

There are a lot of exciting concepts in this proposal. They mainly focus on the need for the U.S. government to fund the corps. But there is another big challenge: getting the scientific community to value the kind of work that Mertz and Mishra are proposing. Scientists place a high priority on producing graduates who will go on to do more science. For years, we have known that only around 10% of science Ph.D.’s get tenure-track jobs, yet we describe the places where the other 90% end up as the “alternative careers.” In reality, the tenure-track job is the alternative career. Still, during my time in university administration, I was often visited by graduate students who were distraught because their adviser had lost interest in them after they revealed they wanted to work in industry. That broke my heart and also hurt my belief in the scientific enterprise. Shouldn’t we want our students to be doing what they find fulfilling?

Progress has been made to correct this in recent years, with a coalition of institutions announcing plans to share more data on where Ph.D.s are placed. When I was at Washington University in St. Louis, its graduate school began disclosing this information on its web site for prospective graduate students. The hope was that when people saw these data, the stigma associated with not going from the Ph.D. to a postdoc to an academic job could be lessened. Time will tell whether it helps.

Mertz and Mishra’s proposal will require that kind of approach. Even if the U.S. government were to authorize the American Science Corps tomorrow, we would need principal investigators to get on board by encouraging their graduate students to help the country with this extraordinary need. And if the American Science Corps doesn’t happen, we still need to fix this problem. It is contradictory to bemoan the sorry state of trust in science and not be willing to put our best people to work on the problem.