What is on the agenda for science during the last 2 years of this Administration? Many believe that with the change in Congress, now we can relax regarding the abuse of science that we have seen in recent years. The scientific community needs to be aware that much of the actions taken by the Executive Branch cannot be blocked by Congress, at least not in the short term. Every administration has made promises, and they often endeavor to come through on these promises during the last few years (or even the last few months) of their term of office. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if the goals are consistent with good science, public health and the law. Are we going to see a “compromising” Executive Branch, working with Congress, promoting good science, or are we going to see more of what we have seen in the past, issuing of regulations, decisions, and policies that undermine the missions of our health, environment, and science-based agencies?
So far, there are not good signs. Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services appointed a new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs (DASPA), who is to run the Title X family planning program providing services to approximately 5 million women each year. Unfortunately, the appointee, Dr. Eric Keroack, has been the medical director of a network of “crisis pregnancy centers” which oppose providing information or access to contraceptive services to women.
Just this week, the Administration argued against taking action on global climate change through regulation by the EPA of carbon emission by automobiles. The arguments were based in part on the rationale that the science is not yet clear on whether global climate change is a real phenomenon and whether human activity contributes to global climate change, if it exists. Notably, a number of senior climate change scientists, several of them employed by federal science agencies, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court making the argument that the science is much further along and that these arguments raising false doubt are not valid.
Other examples exist in foreign policy and the judiciary that appear to demonstrate a lack of willingness to change course, but those are not directly tied to science (although it could be argued that they still demonstrate a disregard for evidence).
So what will be next? Abortion is always a hot topic, so perhaps, in complete disregard of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health, we will see the drug, Mifepristone (also known as the abortion drug RU-486) taken off the market. By deliberately confusing the rare deaths due to Clostridium sordelii after medical abortion and asserting that it is a direct drug effect, when it appears that this rare but fatal infection is also associated with childbirth, miscarriage, and other conditions, a false rationale is born, in the guise of protecting women. If women’s health were truly the motive, we’d see more active research and surveillance of maternal outcomes and for interventions and effective treatments of this particular infection.
Loosening the regulations on industry without regard for the public health will also likely occur, in small and large ways. David Michaels (and the Washington Post) indicate that there might be hope in some issues, but they will require vigilance, hard work, and action by Congress and advocacy organizations. I would urge individual scientists engage actively, because the advocacy has to be backed by evidence – and I still have hope that evidence can persuade.
PotomacFeverish is a Washington, DC-based scientist