Obviously, the victories of science are evident all around us, notably in human health! The many successes include the extension of useful life and vitality to an average of about 80 years, the total elimination of deadly diseases such as smallpox and poliomyelitis, and the list goes on and on. Undoubtedly, we can expect to achieve additional major advances—provided of course—that science encounters no major roadblocks.
But now, and for the first time in memory, political interference is threatening disrupt this progress! According to the editors of—surprisingly—a major British medical journal, Donald Trump’s presidency has “raised worrying questions about its likely impact on science and health policy”. This article goes on to state “The administration seems to place little value on facts or analysis, and may not be considering the consequences of its pronouncements and policies on biomedical research and the health of Americans and citizens around the world. We are particularly concerned that Trump’s administration is acting in ways that will suppress research and limit communication on scientific topics that it deems politically inconvenient,” Moreover, these authors state “scientific communications at the Environmental Protection Agency were being vetted by political appointees before public presentation, and communications with the public had been restricted for employees at various agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Health and Human Services. Federal websites are being scrubbed of scientific information, adding that a reversal of the Affordable Care Act could damage health, and that new immigration policies could harm recruitment and training of doctors and scientists and worsen physician shortages.”. Weighing in further, Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, DC, states “You have a President who isn’t afraid to attack individuals who he deems enemies, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a scientist who published information he didn’t like could become subject to his wrath.” He said reports of a “gag order” on communications at various federal agencies has led to anxiety and uncertainty — in part because the administration has created confusion by not specifically stating its communications policies in writing.
Officials at various federal agencies have told reporters there is no such “gag order.” When contacted by Medscape Medical News, representatives from the National Institutes of Health said, “The US Department of Health and Human Services and its agencies continue to communicate fully about its work through all of its regular communication channels with the public, the media and other relevant audiences. There is no directive to do otherwise.” But various other federal scientists that have been contacted have indicated otherwise, and this is leading to self-censoring. One stated “In an uncertain time, people tend to keep their heads down so they don’t get chopped off.”
Other scientific organizations have also been registering alarm about the Trump administration. In November 2016, more than 2000 scientists signed a letter to Trump and Congress, asking them to “adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental threats”.
A Call to Action
The British editors said their aim was to “reaffirm our commitment to fostering and applying the best evidence for policy and practice, to be an open forum for rigorous debate that challenges the status quo and holds us all to account, to speak truth to power and support others who do the same, and to actively campaign for a better world, based on our values of transparency, independence, and scientific and journalistic integrity.”
Other organizations have also urged scientists to stand up and speak out. “Taking action is the best course when science is threatened or when science can illuminate public issues,” wrote Rush Holt, PhD, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an editorial in Science in early February. Scientists should not remain silent, Dr Holt said. They should avoid politicizing science, but, also shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that the facts will speak for themselves. “One need not avoid — indeed, should not avoid — applying relevant science in political or societal situations where it can help address problems,” he wrote.
In a separate editorial in Science, AAAS President Barbara Schaal, PhD, called on the administration to include credible scientists as advisers, “not individuals who reject proven science on issues of critical public importance such as vaccines or climate change.” Dr Schaal, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St Louis, wrote, “Science cannot thrive when policy-makers — regardless of political party affiliation — use disagreements as an opportunity to attack scientific conclusions that counter a political agenda.”
But political interference goes one step further, for government representatives are even espousing antiscience by attempting to deny the advantages of immunization, an issue that has been critically and objectively settled in past years, ad nauseum. Robert F. Kennedy Jr believes—without credible evidence—the vaccine preservative thimerosal has led to an uptick in neurodevelopmental and other disorders in children. The Trump administration allegedly plans to assemble a vaccine safety commission to explore potential links between vaccinations and a host of disorders, including autism—long ago debunked. Kennedy, chairman of the World Mercury Project, a nonprofit group whose partners include groups that espouse a vaccine-autism link, told reporters attending a Washington, DC, press briefing that he is still in discussion with the administration regarding the assembling of a vaccine commission.
More recently, President Trump said he “knew that the pharmaceutical industry was going to cause an uproar about this,” but he promised he would not back down. “We need a debate on this,” said Kennedy, who has campaigned against mercury in vaccines for at least a decade. “I don’t see how anyone has a legitimate objection to having another set of eyes on the vaccine program,” he said.
In early February, however, more than 350 medical organizations wrote a letter to Trump, which included a long list of studies demonstrating the safety of vaccines, to express their “unequivocal support” for the safety of these products.
The current administration now appears to be challenging what they already have dubbed “fake news,” but they now seem to be training their sights on what they are likely to call “fake science.” If they continue along this path, they are doing so at their own risk, as well as the risk of the entire population’s health! Although remaining above the fray for decades, it’s now high time for scientists to move into the political arena!