Roundup: Sidelining Science Hits New Lows in Response to Public Health Crisis

April 7, 2020 | 4:47 pm
Governor Tom Wolf/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
UCS Science Network

This post is part of a series of quarterly roundups on scientific integrity.

The first three months of 2020 provided an immediate and terrible demonstration of what can happen when an administration ignores and misrepresents evidence on a threat to public health, in the form of a rapidly mounting death toll from COVID-19.  Despite the pandemic, the Trump administration pushed ahead with a dangerous rule at the Environmental Protection Agency. Advocates are pushing back against damaging actions while highlighting the value of transparency and whistleblowers.

The Trump administration’s sidelining of science worsens the COVID-19 crisis

As the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 caused an outbreak that became a pandemic, the Trump administration failed to adopt the kind of swift, science-based approach that could have let us slow the disease’s spread in the U.S. Since taking office, the administration has brushed aside warnings about pandemics, eliminated and shrunk offices that respond to them, failed to fill scientific leadership positions, taken actions that harm recruitment and retention at scientific agencies, and placed unwarranted restrictions on fetal tissue research that could help identify treatments.

As other countries engaged in widespread testing and reported rising case counts, President Trump made it clear that he was most concerned about keeping the U.S. case count low, whether or not that reflected reality (an exacerbation of a pattern he displayed when covering up, rather than correcting, an inaccurate statement about Hurricane Dorian’s path). With unwarranted rosy predictions and outright lies about the likely course of the pandemic and availability of U.S. resources, he routinely violates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidebook for crisis communications that build credibility and trust.

Rather than letting our government’s highly qualified experts lead COVID-19 response and communications, Trump tapped Vice President Pence—who disregarded evidence while mismanaging Indiana’s HIV outbreak—to head the coronavirus task force. In moves that further sideline science, Pence directed that all government health officials and scientists coordinate all statements and public appearances with his office, and the White House ordered that top-level coronavirus meetings be classified—meaning that scientists without security clearances can’t participate.

A Department of Health and Human Services employee filed a whistleblower complaint alleging retaliation after the employee raised concerns about inadequate preparations and equipment for workers sent to meet passengers returning from a quarantined cruise ship; this raises concerns about what else we might not be hearing because employees fear for their jobs if they speak up.

The public is fortunate that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, continues to use his public platform to speak clearly and accurately about COVID-19, even when it means contradicting statements Trump has made.

Looking ahead: Advocates continue to push for changes that would prioritize science in the COVID-19 response. This includes calling on the media to stop airing Trump’s inaccurate statements and the Trump administration to let scientists communicate directly with the public and lift restrictions on fetal tissue research. A scientist sign-on letter asking the administration to allow federal health officials and scientists to communicate directly with the publicly without political clearance is still accepting signatures.

EPA moves forward with a rule that cuts science out of regulation

In 2018, EPA released a proposed rule that would sharply restrict the studies it could consider when crafting regulations, with the purported goal of increasing transparency. Nearly 600,000 comments poured in, and the vast majority voiced strong opposition. Rather than using that feedback to reduce the rule’s harmful impact, the agency instead issued a supplemental notice that expands the science to which the rule applies—it now governs all “influential science,” not just that used in regulatory efforts.

In response to concerns that the rule would prevent EPA from considering important studies based on the fact that their raw data could not be made public (a common ethical safeguard in research), the agency offered two inadequate approaches: selective sharing of data, which is still not allowed under the ethical requirements for most research, and down-weighting of studies with non-public data, which would result in an inaccurate reflection of the state of the science. “From pesticide regulation to air pollution protections, chemical safety rules to water quality standards, the rule will hamstring the ability of the agency to protect people from environmental threats,” warns Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) asked the EPA Inspector General to investigate problems related to the preparation and review of the supplemental proposal and urged the agency to withdraw it. EPA’s ability to consider the best available science isn’t the only thing at stake if this rule succeeds; the Department of the Interior has issued a similar proposal.

Looking ahead: In the absence of EPA efforts to hear from the full range of affected stakeholders, the Union of Concerned Scientists scheduled a virtual public hearing to solicit input on the supplement. Advocates have requested that the agency extend the public comment period while also preparing to submit comments by the May 18 deadline.

Sunshine Week highlights the value of transparency and whistleblowers

During Sunshine Week in March, the Government Accountability Project and Make It Safe Coalition launched an open letter to the President and Congress urging stronger protections for federal whistleblowers—including granting employees the right to a jury trial, the right to challenge retaliatory investigations, and access to temporary relief while awaiting a ruling. The organizers are collecting signatures from organizations and individuals across the political and issue spectrum, noting, “Just in the past year alone, government whistleblowers have exposed abuse of migrants in detention centers, risks to food safety from contaminated pork, efforts to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into a presidential candidate, and problems with the government’s response to the coronavirus.”

In addition, the Government Accountability Project released a new guide: Truth-Telling in Government: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, Contractors, and Grantees. For science-specific content, the Government Accountability Project recently updated its guide Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees and Contractors.

Looking ahead: The sign-on letter for increasing federal whistleblower protections is accepting organizational and individual signatures until April 15. And organizations such as the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and Project on Government Oversight stand ready to work with whistleblowers concerned about waste, fraud, and abuse at scientific agencies.




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