Trump ignores science at our peril
Like the actors in a famous 1980s cough syrup commercial, Donald Trump is not a doctor, but he plays one on TV. During a March 24 Fox News town hall from the White House Rose Garden, the president compared the coronavirus to the flu and suggested easing social isolation protocols and returning to business-as-usual by Easter. Just a few days earlier, he tweeted that an anti-malaria drug, coupled with a common antibiotic, could cure COVID-19 and should “be put in use immediately.”
Trump’s recommendations for treating the coronavirus prompted swift condemnation from public health experts.
First, COVID-19 — for which there is no preventive vaccine or cure — is twice as contagious as the flu and significantly more deadly. Second, allowing U.S. businesses to reopen and people to go back to work as early as April 12 likely would result in millions of additional unnecessary deaths. And third, the malaria drug Trump prescribed — hydroxychloroquine — has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective against the coronavirus.
Even so, Trump’s tweet had an immediate impact, triggering panic-buying, skyrocketing prices and overdoses in malaria-prone regions in Africa and South Asia. U.S.-based doctors — who should know better — are reportedly hoarding it and other related, non-approved drugs by writing prescriptions for themselves and their families.
As outrageous as Trump’s ill-advised comments were, they shouldn’t come as a surprise. They were merely the most recent examples of the Trump administration’s unrelenting assault on public health and environmental protections.
Indeed, since taking office, the administration has launched more than 130 attacks on science — more than the George W. Bush administration amassed over its two four-year terms. Included in that list are cases in which the administration hindered data collection, censored and suppressed studies and implemented rules that failed to follow the best available science.
In addition, the administration has rolled back or eliminated nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations. When courts struck down its illegal attempts to eviscerate environmental safeguards, it often failed to enforce them, even before the Environmental Protection Agency announced on March 26 that it will relax its rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, giving companies what former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called “an open license to pollute.”
During Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Many believed that he was going to rid the nation’s capital of the army of special interest lobbyists that far outnumber members of Congress.
Instead, he handed over the keys to the government to corporate lobbyists and sacked members of what he derisively calls the “deep state” — the dedicated, career civil servants, including scientists, who work from administration to administration on behalf of the public interest.
During its first two years in office, the Trump administration pushed more than 1,600 federal scientists out the door, most notably “social scientists, soil conservationists, hydrologists and experts in the physical sciences — chemistry, geology, astronomy and physics,” according to a Washington Post investigation. At the same time the administration sidelined, muzzled and canned federal scientists, it has been eliminating independent advisory committees that in some cases have been providing technical advice to the government for decades.
In fiscal year 2018, there were approximately 1,000 advisory committees with more than 60,000 top experts advising federal agencies on a range of issues, from pollution control to nutrition guidelines to transportation safety. Nearly 600 of the committees are required by law.
The Trump administration started shutting down advisory committees soon after it took office, and by June 2019 the president issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to purge at least a third of roughly 400 non-mandated panels by the end of last September. The administration has not released a list of terminated committees, but my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has been able to confirm that more than 50 have been targeted for elimination thus far and at least 10 have been cut as a result of the executive order.
Arbitrarily axing federal experts and outside advisors can have serious consequences. A prime, well-documented example is what happened to the unit inside the White House National Security Council (NSC) that was established after the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to prepare for health emergencies. When John Bolton became the president’s national security advisor in 2018, he halved the NSC staff from around 250 to 110 and eliminated the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. Despite President Trump’s claim that the coronavirus “came out of nowhere” and “blindsided the world,” NSC’s global health directorate had been warning about the potential for pandemics for years.
While Americans focus on the pandemic, the administration has intensified its campaign to gut environmental safeguards by the end of the year. Its proposed rollbacks include weakening requirements to consider climate change in infrastructure project environmental reviews and relaxing controls on coal power plant mercury emissions and toxic ash ponds.
Perhaps the administration’s most damaging wrecking-ball agenda item is one that has been on polluting industries’ wish list for years but has never been able to win congressional approval. Ostensibly to promote transparency in rulemaking, it would handcuff the EPA by prohibiting it from using scientific studies that do not make underlying data publicly available so that the research can be independently verified. Studies that rely on confidential personal health data would not pass muster, making it difficult, if not impossible, to make the case that industry should curb air and water emissions to protect public health. Ironically enough, according to the American Public Health Association, it also could be used to reject research involving pandemics like the coronavirus.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is we ignore science at our peril.
Elliott Negin, a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.