The Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 is a dramatic example of the dangers of political interference with the work of government scientists. Its handling of this growing public health crisis violates key scientific integrity principles, such as suppressing research and preventing scientists from accurately communicating their research in a timely way. As a result, science is undermined and our health is at risk.
President Trump has provided false information and misrepresented facts about the virus. These include giving an incorrect number of confirmed COVID-19 cases; suggesting that a vaccine for the virus will be ready for public distribution much faster than is possible; saying a “cure” will soon be available; and asserting that the virus will “disappear” in the spring.
Each of these statements contradicts sound government science and all were corrected by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Trump has made it clear that his disinformation campaign has a political purpose: Downplaying the severity of the situation. At one point, he said he was reluctant to allow a cruise ship with 21 confirmed cases onboard to dock in the U.S. because “I like the numbers being where they are.”
There are concerning reports that the White House is trying to control government scientists’ ability to communicate COVID-19 information to the public. Per a White House directive, government health officials have to coordinate their messages and public appearances related to the virus with the office of Vice President Pence. The White House also reportedly ordered the classification of top-level meetings on COVID-19.
These actions “put a lid on certain information” and exclude experts who lack the required security clearance. Most brazen of all, The Associated Press reported that the White House overruled CDC officials, who wanted to advise elderly and ailing Americans not to fly. The White House ordered the removal of this recommendation from a CDC plan.
The administration’s apparent desire to downplay, contradict, and control messaging and available scientific information about a public health crisis for political reasons have deeply worrying impacts. The distribution of virus test kits in the U.S. has been notoriously slow. A whistleblower recently reported that the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, without proper training or protective gear.
A 2009 executive memorandum called on federal agencies to develop scientific integrity policies in part to prevent actions like these. Amazingly, the CDC, which is on the front lines of managing public health crises like COVID-19, has a scientific integrity policy that is relatively weak in terms of protecting its researchers from political influence. We know this because we recently evaluated the CDC policy as part of our project to help federal researchers understand the policies of nine different federal agencies.
The CDC policy does not protect scientists from censorship or being pressured to alter their work. It also fails to grant scientists an unequivocal right to communicate with the press about their work without interference.
These omissions are unacceptable for a critical scientific agency. CDC scientists should be guaranteed the right to freely communicate with the press and have their work protected from political interference. The American public should be protected by agency decisions that reflect scientific realities, not political priorities. The damage done by political interference with scientists’ work on COVID-19 shows how essential these protections are.
The need for more robust agency scientific integrity policies is one reason why we’ve joined other public interest groups in supporting the bipartisan Scientific Integrity Act. It would codify the requirement that federal agencies have scientific integrity policies and require that the policies meet basic standards. Today, these requirements exist only in executive memoranda and do not have the force of legislation.
COVID-19 demonstrates that the autonomy and integrity of our federal scientific agencies are in jeopardy. Experts must be able to openly communicate the best available science to the public without fear of political interference or reprisal. Strengthening the scientific integrity policies at agencies like the CDC to unambiguously offer scientists these protections would enable this to happen, and not just during major health crises.