Sidelining Science During a Pandemic

Published May 12, 2020

Science policy expert Michael Halpern exposes how the Trump administration is unraveling health and safety standards during COVID-19.

In this episode
  • Our Got Science? coronavirus coverage continues
  • Michael points to ways the Trump administration has continued to sideline science during an unfolding global pandemic
  • Colleen fights the urge to scream into a pillow, and finds something to be hopeful about
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:37)
Intro (0:37-2:18)
Interview part 1(2:18-13:27)
Break (13:27-15:02)
Interview part 2 (15:02-23:44)
Sidelining Science throw (23:44-24:03)
Sidelining Science (24:03-27:51)
Outro (27:51-28:55)

Related content
Show credits

Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing and Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

For two months, my colleagues and I have been working from home to heed the best available evidence-based guidelines and keep our communities safe. We are a science organization, after all. And while we’ve found ways to connect and feel joy as much as possible, there’s no doubt that we miss the life we had before. So it’s tempting to say that we can’t wait for things to go back to normal.

But it’s unfortunately getting clearer and clearer that there were big problems with normal... because normal for our federal government meant not listening to scientists. Normal led us into a botched pandemic response.

And unfortunately, the current administration hasn’t changed the way it sidelines, ignores, and silences science. But that shouldn’t be normal. Because without science, decisionmakers put forth policies that are out of touch with reality and put people in harm’s way.

Today’s guest is catching us up on the legislative damage being done. Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, shares some of the proposals being pushed through during this pandemic, and why they are so dangerous for public health and the planet.

And if all this makes you feel like screaming into a pillow... you’re not alone. So Michael and I talk about what we can do after we’re done screaming into a pillow, to make progress towards the world we want to see. One where we can still share pizza with a friend like we used to… but we also listen to the scientists and experts who work so hard to make the world safer, happier, and healthier.

Colleen: Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael: It's great to be with you, Colleen.

Colleen: So, while we're all focused on COVID-19, the administration is pushing through deeply unpopular proposals that threaten our health and safety. But before we dig into that, I want to start with science capacity in the current administration, I mean, many scientific positions are still unfilled, scientific panels that advise policymakers have been disbanded. I mean, what is the current state of science?

Michael: Well, I think it's good to start at the beginning, Colleen, and to recognize that there's never been very much interest in expertise from this administration. There are thousands of scientists and other experts in government who have spent many years developing an understanding of threats to public health, threats to the environment. And after President Trump was elected, these experts prepared all kinds of materials for the political teams coming in just like they had for President Obama and for President Bush before him.

Unfortunately, during that presidential transition time, the people coming in to lay the groundwork for President Trump had little interest in meeting with these government experts and hearing from them what had worked in the past. We know that there was a pandemic response meeting just a few days before the inauguration when the incoming and outgoing governments met to go over a really specific flu pandemic scenario where there was going to be a shortage of ventilators and treatments and where it required a really careful coordinated national response. And after that meeting, nothing happened, nothing moved forward. There just wasn't that much interest from the president-elect in this kind of preparedness. And we've seen this play out throughout the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, all of which have a role to play in addressing urgent public health and environmental threats.

Colleen: Well, that raises a really interesting question, which is how should a government prepare for a pandemic like this?

Michael: Well, you have to start well before a disease emerges. You know, by the time there's a pandemic, it's really too late. People in leadership positions have to be present and they have to be prepared. So, what would we have done? We would have deployed significant disease surveillance systems to see what was coming. Diplomats and intelligence services would work with other countries to both evaluate the reliability of the information that they are telling us and to work together to try to stem this kind of crisis. The president would pay attention to the daily briefings that he or she is getting and deploy resources accordingly.

So, you would see stockpiles of medical equipment that would be evaluated and increased if necessary. We would see testing, ramping up quickly. We would be collecting and reporting data that helps us understand and contain the spread of the virus. Reporters and the public would have direct access to scientists who are really experienced in communicating risk without either overplaying or underplaying the threat that we face. Very little of this has happened over the past few weeks. And that's why you see the United States, which used to be the gold standard when it came to disease protection with the incoherent response and one of the worst outbreaks currently in the world, when you don't have the right people in place consistently and soberly communicating what we know, states and cities and you and I can't make informed decisions about what temporary restrictions should be put in place to stop a catastrophe. You know, instead of relying on scientists to guide this process, the White House is turning to people like Rudy Giuliani and Dr. Phil.

Colleen: So your team has catalogued more than a hundred and thirty examples where the administration has sidelined science. So let’s focus on some of the most egregious actions. What are your top five or, really, worst five, examples of this administration sidelining science while we are all focused on this pandemic?

Michael: Well, I would start with the Environmental Protection Agency, which is kind of the epicenter for a lot of this activity. In March, they put forth new rules that watered-down automobile fuel efficiency, which is gonna cost consumers a lot more and create a lot more emissions, and not even the auto industry wanted these changes. And in April, the EPA allowed coal plants to emit more mercury and then proposed to keep particulate matter pollution controls where they are. And in all three of these examples, they're cooking the books and laying waste to science to come to the conclusions that support their policies that they want to put forward. Let's just look at particulate matter. There's new research that’s emerging that shows that for every microgram of additional particulate matter in the air, the risk of death by coronavirus increases by 8%. Now, that makes a lot of sense. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and people with weakened lungs are going to suffer more, so in this sense the policies that are being put forward are out of touch with the current reality.

Another example that we're tracking extremely closely at UCS is this rule that we called the restricted science rule. So, the EPA put forward a proposal on March 18th to prevent public health studies from being used in a lot of the EPA's work. And of course, if you have to throw out public health research, you can't demonstrate that there's a problem and you don't have to do anything. The agency decided to give the public 60 days to comment on this rule that would really transform how science is used in policy-making with no public hearings in the middle of a pandemic. So, we decided that that wasn't acceptable and UCS did our own hearing on behalf of the EPA. So, what did we get? Dozens of doctors and public health advocates and even one member of Congress came forward to speak publicly about how the rule would effectively neuter the EPA by stripping science from the agency's decisions and scientific assessments. So, if the EPA isn't going to seek out advice on its own proposals, we're going to provide it to them whether they want it or not.

Colleen: So, Michael, when you provide that information, what then happens?

Michael: So, we submit this information to the agency during the public comment period, and the agency is required to address all of the substantive issues that are raised in those public comments. Not only does this take a lot of time, but it requires EPA to essentially show its work and to justify why it is doing what it is doing. And this administrative record can also be used later on in court challenges against bad decisions. So, that's why we think it's really important for scientists and non-scientists alike to make public comments on these types of proposals to ensure that they are as science-based as possible.

Colleen: So, essentially, this restricted science rule, it likely will or will not happen.

Michael: We'll see what they do. The scientific community has been united in opposition to this rule. They have urged the administration not to pursue this for more than two years. And if the EPA decides to finalize it in the form that we see it today, then I think there's going to be a lot of legal challenges to try to stop it from going into effect.

Colleen: So it essentially gets tied up in court.

Michael: It depends. A court could decide to stop it from going into effect or a court could allow it to go into effect while it's considering different arguments. And so, you know, I think it's important for us to pushback in as many ways as possible to ensure that this doesn't actually become final.

Colleen: Okay, you’ve given me a bunch of examples already. But let’s put them into two buckets. The health and safety rollbacks at the EPA, and what the EPA is doing to cook the books. So what’s number three on your list?

Michael: So, the Department of Interior, which is responsible for oversight of public lands and implementation of the Endangered Species Act and a lot of climate research and more isn't faring too much better. I know that a few months ago the administration effectively stopped implementing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which is supposed to penalize companies like oil and gas companies for killing birds as part of their operations. So, we're going to have a lot more dying birds as a result.

Colleen: How is it that they can do that?

Michael: So, all federal agencies are tasked with implementing the laws that Congress passes. One of these laws is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which for a hundred years has been enormously effective in discouraging industry from setting up industrial waste facilities in a way that endanger these birds. So in this case, the administration interpreted the law in a way that would require the government to prove that a company intentionally tried to kill the birds before any kind of punitive action could be taken. So, if a company creates a giant pit with a lot of sewage in it and birds land in that pit and die, as long that wasn't done intentionally, the company gets a free pass.

Colleen: So, as a recreational bird watcher, that one really gets under my skin. But let’s move on to number four on your list.

Michael: So people shouldn't need to choose between their health and their ability to vote. And we know from what we've seen in recent primaries in Wisconsin and elsewhere, that the country is not prepared for a free and fair election during a pandemic. The good thing is we know that 80% of Americans want the option to vote by mail this November. And the people also want more options for voting early and having other ways of participating in the electoral process. It isn't clear, however, that they're going to get that opportunity. And indeed, it looks like the president wants to stop this from happening. Congress appropriated $400 million in the recent stimulus bills, which is a good start. But experts are estimating that $4 billion is necessary to enable states to carry out free and fair elections in November. And so, we're doing our best to advocate to make that happen.


Colleen: So Michael, I occasionally get asked why UCS is working on voting issues. And what is the science connection? And you seem like the perfect person to answer that question.

Michael: Well, what I think is super fascinating about UCS’s work is that we are able to link voting rights and environmental justice. We know from research by UCS and others that poorer health outcomes are associated with disenfranchisement. And if elected officials are less accountable to their constituents, they feel less pressure to support policies that benefit those constituents, whether that’s related to public health or the environment or security or any other issue. Now, Colleen, we should be improving access to the ballot even without COVID-19. It’s just that the pandemic makes that need so much more urgent and so much more stark.

Colleen: How should we be thinking about the election in November given where we are right now with this pandemic?

Michael: Well, we have to be prepared for all kinds of different situations. We all saw what happened in Wisconsin, where polls failed to open and election judges were either ill-prepared or absent. And we saw people waiting in line for hours to vote without protective equipment. And we know that people should not be forced to choose between their right to vote and their health. The federal government and state governments need to be prepared for significant disruptions in the fall. We could have a surge in coronavirus cases. We could have hurricanes that displace significant numbers of people and make it much more difficult to protect them in the time of coronavirus. Election official need to be prepared for all kinds of different outcomes, which is why we think it’s important to ensure vote by mail, ensure early access to in person voting, and ensure online voter registration. We know that voting by mail is cheaper, it increases turnout, it enjoys bipartisan support, and fraud is essentially nonexistent. So every voter should have that opportunity.

Colleen: And tell me about your number five.

Michael: Oh, Nancy Beck. So, the president has nominated a former chemical industry executive, her name is Nancy Beck, to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which would be a disaster for public health and safety. The CPSC is responsible, of course, for making sure that furniture, for example, doesn't have unsafe levels of flame retardants. Now, Beck has spent her entire career trying to stop public protections from moving forward. And she actually did a stint at the EPA earlier in the administration where she was involved in developing that rule to exclude the public health studies from consideration.

And this has direct impacts on health and safety. You know, last year there were scientists at the consumer product safety commission who determined that a particular type of jogging stroller was shown to cause potentially life-threatening injuries to children. But the acting chair of the agency at the time withheld information about the unsafe strollers from other commissioners to prevent the agency from taking action. We can't have this kind of industry control of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is supposed to be an independent agency looking out for the public interest.

Colleen: So, Michael, you're talking...we know a lot about what they are doing. Are there equally things that they're not doing that are harmful?

Michael: Part of the reason you and I have such difficulty making our own decisions about how to keep ourselves safe during the coronavirus pandemic is that we're not getting the data and information that we need from the government. So far, the government has failed to collect sufficient information about COVID illness and death by race, which makes it more difficult for us to understand the health disparities that exist. So far, we don't have enough information about who is being tested and where and when new tests will be available. So far, we don't have enough information about where more supplies are needed and more resources are needed. And so, all of this compromises our ability to be able to respond. And when the president leaves it up to the states to figure it out themselves, we're going to see more illness and we're going to see more death.

Colleen: So, Michael, have previous administrations been this bad when it comes to science?

Michael: While the Trump administration has certainly been much worse when it comes to violations of scientific integrity and political interference in science, it's really been a long-term problem that we've been trying to solve for several administrations, which is to create a firewall between the scientists and the politicians who want to twist the facts to support the policies that they want to put forward. The American people should be hearing directly from experts about threats to human health and the environment.

Colleen: Michael, aside from putting our face in a pillow and screaming, are there things, tangible things, that you and I can do to prevent these things from happening?

Michael: So, it's okay to scream into pillows, first of all. But I think the number one thing overall is that we need to resist being cynical about the country and the world. I think cynicism is the enemy of progress and the enemy of action and it just makes people want to scream into their pillows and then stop. I do feel like there are major conversations coming in this country as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This kind of big upheaval brings big opportunities for us to have conversations about the kind of world we want to see, the kind of safety net that we think is important, the types of environmental protections that we think are necessary, how we're going to create a society that is more resilient to the next pandemic or to climate change or to the other challenges that are coming our way in the future.

And so, a lot of people are talking about when are we going to return to normal? Well, I'm not sure if we want to return to normal because the normal needed improvement. We need to articulate what is the world we want to see so that we can get to the outcomes that will be best for the public and will be best for all of us. I think it's also important for us to engage in the process as much as we can. So, the public comment period for the rule that would restrict the use of science at the EPA is open until May 18th. And people can go to the Union of Concerned Scientists website to learn more about how to provide effective comments that the EPA will have to consider before it moves forward. Not only does this delay the rule from being finalized quickly, but it also provides a lot of substantive input into why the rule is a problem and a lot of information for courts to consider later on should there be a challenge to the rule, which I expect there to be.

Colleen: Well, Michael, I'm really glad that you talked about not becoming cynical and, you know, it does often sound cheesy to say what gives you hope, but I think it's really important what you were just talking about.

Michael: Well, I'm in a bit of a lucky position because I'm surrounded by scientists who are out there every day responding to the coronavirus pandemic, building community, sharing their expertise with the reporters and congressional staff and really helping to ensure that in the future we do have more science-based policy. And I'm inspired by the scientists who work for the EPA, who work for the Centers for Disease Control, who work for the Department of Health and Human Services, who are doing cutting edge research and bringing us incredible knowledge on environmental contaminants and public health threats. And without their determination, we'd be in a much worse place. And so, we do have many thousands of experts who are out there working hard to make the world better. We just need to create the political space that allows them to do that.

Colleen: Well, Michael, thanks for joining me. I'm glad we could end on an uplifting note.

Michael: It's always a pleasure. Thanks, Colleen.

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