Science published by federal agencies in the Trump administration has been politicized and undermined, according to a recent report from GW and other experts.
By Kristen Mitchell
Under the current administration, federal agencies have seen science politicized, mischaracterized and suppressed in ways that pose risks for public health, according to a new report from experts including those at Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, based in the Milken Institute School of Public Health.
The report, titled “Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help,” was put together by a wide-ranging group of organizations that promote science-based policymaking, including the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health. It describes threats to the use of science in government decisions regarding public health and recommends steps Congress can take in response.
The publication comes at a time when President Donald Trump has undermined a new National Climate Assessment from his administration detailing the growing threat of climate change. He has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus that human actions have contributed to climate change.
GW Today recently spoke to Susan F. Wood, director of the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health and a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, about the recent U.S. climate assessment and the alarming findings about the state of scientific suppression within the federal government in “Protecting Science.”
This interview with Dr. Wood has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: The recent climate report was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a move some have criticized as an effort to bury the news. Does that align with the kind of practices the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health found in “Protecting Science?”
A: Unfortunately, I do see that they are aligned. Some of the practices that we were looking for are ones that undermine the credibility and validity of data, and how that data is used in policymaking decisions by the federal government and the federal agencies. When you take a really sound analysis of the data that was done by the climate report and try to minimize it, and President Trump then tried to undermine it entirely, and say it’s not believable, it’s unfortunately a poster child of how this administration is oftentimes not using science and actually weakening it.
Q: What does society lose when the free flow of information between federal scientists and the public is suppressed or interrupted?
A: When we’re talking about the use of science in public policy, there’s usually a very specific end in mind - and that is the improvement of our health, our environment or the public’s ability to live and thrive, not just in the United States but around the world. So when we don’t make best use of the knowledge we have, we are limiting that. When we actively undermine it, we are actually taking ourselves in the wrong direction. With things like climate change, health care or other environmental issues, we want to take advantage of what we know and what we’re learning as quickly as possible. There are indeed threats we need to address, and science is the best way to get there.
Q: Why is it important that politically-appointed agency leaders don’t ignore or mischaracterize scientific evidence on issues like climate change, worker compensation and reproductive health?
A: Those leaders are the ones who not just set the tone but direct these large federal agencies in their work. All of these agencies have such an important role in both funding and conducting the research, and then analyzing and evaluating it for our benefit. If the politically-appointed leaders are undermining that work or blocking that work or minimizing that work, then we all lose.
Susan F Wood, director of the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health and a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, speaks at a 2014 congressional hearing. (Photo: Rick Reinhard)
Q: Under the Trump administration, the EPA has removed some references to climate science from its website. Have you found similar practices within other agencies?
A: I know there have been findings that things related to LGBTQ health have been removed, things related to reproductive health have been removed or modified, changing the focus to abstinence-only information or misinformation about contraception and abortion. We are starting to see it in different places, not just about climate change.
Q: The “Protecting Science” report also finds that federal agencies under this administration were neglecting important advisory committees. What role do these committees play in public health?
A: Advisory committees play a key role in many agencies, and they provide independent expertise to the agencies as they are making their decisions. If you start putting in people who either don’t have the qualifications or have a strong bias in one direction or another, you end up weakening the entire system and getting poor advice to policy makers.
Q: The report details how federal agencies have shifted support away from comprehensive family planning projects toward abstinence-only education. What are some of the lasting consequences of this change for public health?
A: It’s important to remember that contraception has been identified by the CDC, many years ago, as one of the most important public health advances in the last century. It obviously provides women and couples the chance to plan their families, delay pregnancies and have healthy birth spacing. Unfortunately, we’ve seen things such as trying to cut back coverage of contraception under the Affordable Care Act, changing the funding priorities for family planning programs to a focus on abstinence or natural family planning. That obviously puts all of the advances we’ve made at risk, not just in family planning for women over the last several decades but their opportunities in life for education, employment, and advancing in their careers.
Q: What should Congress do to push back on politicized science?
A: There needs to be oversight, first of all. There needs to be investigation into what has been happening in the agencies regarding the use of science and their policies and bringing the science agencies back to their original mission without the politicization. There should be hearings, a focus on investigating particular programs, providing support in areas where it needs strengthening (like advisory committees). We have a series of proposals about the types of hearings and legislation that should be passed to protect the agencies from this kind of interference.