Never before have we seen so many scientific organizations sound the alarm on a presidential administration, something which should frighten us all.
The New England Journal of Medicine has never weighed in on a political candidate in their 208-year history, until last week when they published an editorial signed by all of the editors condemning the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. Last month Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden, a first in their 175 year history. A bipartisan group of four former CDC directors published an op-ed decrying the historic and dangerous politicization of science and public health under the Trump administration. Nine drug companies released a joint statement promising to “stand with science” and only seek approval for their vaccine once it had passed rigorous safety trials in an attempt to bolster public confidence that they wouldn’t be used as pawns in Trump’s reelection bid.
It is a myth that science is apolitical. What science gets funded and who is funded to do that science is inherently political, and the reason diseases that affect predominantly white populations, like Cystic Fibrosis, receive far more research dollars per patient than diseases that predominantly affect Black populations, like Sickle Cell Anemia. More egregiously, cherry-picked and poorly interpreted studies have been used to support eugenics and genocide. However, rightly or wrongly, scientific organizations generally steer clear of direct endorsements or pronouncements that could undermine their claims of non-partisan objectivity. The fact that so many are speaking out now is a testament to the damage that the Trump administration has done to our country and scientific institutions.
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Voting President Donald Trump out of office is only the first step. A Biden administration will face the difficult task of controlling a pandemic that is still killing an average of 1,000 Americans per day. No other high income country has refused to widely implement evidence-based infectious disease control measures like widespread and rapid testing, universal masking, social distancing and contact tracing. Mixed and often inaccurate messaging from Trump has decreased the public buy-in necessary to implement these measures and a new administration will have to work hard to reverse the damage. There is also widespread public distrust of the coronavirus vaccine development process. If an effective candidate is found, the public will have to be convinced that it is safe in order for it to be taken in high enough numbers to produce herd immunity and hasten the end of the pandemic.
If there is a new administration, it will also have to embark on a long term rebuilding of the nation’s scientific infrastructure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long been the world’s preeminent public health agency and helped lead the global response to AIDS, Ebola and Zika. Now the CDC has been tainted by frequent accusations of suppression or misrepresentation of scientific evidence, most recently when their recommendation to require masks on public and commercial transit was blocked by the White House. The Trump administration has politicized science in agencies like the CDC, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and diminished the role of scientific evidence in policy making to a startling degree. Career scientists have been silenced or forced to stop work on topics that are at odds with the administration’s goals, especially climate change and regulating industry. These institutions should be rebuilt in a way that reduces the potential for partisan meddling and will need to work to win back both public and international trust.
Even under the best circumstances the U.S. will feel the results of the Trump administration’s disregard and misuse of science for years to come. We should heed the unprecedented warnings coming from the nation’s top scientific organizations and scientists that the U.S. cannot survive another four years of the Trump administration.