In 1965, the world shook from revelations that a newly approved drug called thalidomide had caused severe and in many cases fatal birth defects in babies born to mothers taking the drug. The tragedy affected thousands across Europe but the US was largely spared. A scientist at the Food and Drug Administration by the name of Doctor Frances Kelsey had saved us. Citing concerns about the safety in clinical trials, she refused to approve the drug, despite direct pressure from its manufacturer to approve it for sale in the US. Countless babies were saved.
Following the thalidomide disaster, the US passed laws to solidify a science-based process for assessing the safety and effectiveness of drugs before they reach the market. Never again would we need to rely only on a hope for heroes like Dr. Kelsey to save us. The new law was joined by a wave of others passed in the 1960s and 1970s that instated processes for science-based policymaking at government agencies. Today, we rely on many such rules to protect our public health, safety, and the environment.
Indeed, we owe much to the decision-makers of the past who had the foresight to see the importance of putting such science-based processes in place. For decades, these laws have ensured, by and large, that science effectively informs our policy choices. And they have safeguarded the government from political pressures that might have compromised decisions intended to be in the public interest. Landmark laws, such as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, and many others have protected Americans from countless deaths, injuries, and illnesses. All thanks to provisions that demand the use of scientific evidence in agency decision-making.
But these processes by which science informs policies that protect American lives are now under threat. The Trump Administration and the 115th Congress are working around the clock to dismantle them. They are doing it through legislation, through dismissing scientific advice, and by eliminating the structures that enable us to make science-based decisions. This isn't about a difference in policy preferences. This is a threat to the well-being of all Americans and it stands to affect us all far beyond the length of the Trump presidency.
Let’s start with a key component of science-based decision making in the government—the science. The Trump administration has been dismissing science advice and eliminating places where scientific input feeds into policy decisions. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has operated in every administration since the 1970s, has virtually shut its doors. Six months into the administration, many federal agencies still have an alarming number of scientific positions unfilled, leaving the nation vulnerable to crises that require deep expertise and fully functional agencies. Are we prepared to react to a new epidemic disease? A landfalling hurricane? A major food illness outbreak?
Moreover, the administration has also cut out opportunities for external science advice. Across the government, federal agencies rely on the advice of independent experts from academia and the nonprofit and private sectors. Hundreds of these scientists give their time and expertise to inform government decisions. Indeed, the federal advisory committee system has allowed the government to benefit from the wealth of scientific knowledge that exists across our many scientific institutions. This has undoubtedly made policies more evidence-based, more effective, and more efficient. But the Trump Administration has made clear they don't value this vital role of independent science advice.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has eviscerated the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee that informs EPA research and he has indicated he looks to do the same with the EPA Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, two committees responsible for providing science-based recommendations for EPA’s air and water quality standards, among other areas. Over at the Department of the Interior, federal advisory committees have been frozen, unable to schedule meetings and fulfill their duties. At the Department of Justice, a committee to ensure that scientific methods are employed in forensic science has been dismantled in its entirety. Without such crucial scientific input into agency decisions the government is left vulnerable to being unable to protect the public health and safety with the best available science.
Amidst these disturbing trends, the administration is seemingly replacing the predominant role of public interest with that of private interests. The administration has put in powerful individuals with close ties to the industries they are now charged with overseeing. The mission of many federal agencies is to protect public health, safety, and the environment using science. Can they do this with someone in charge with little experience in government or with science-based policy-making? The independence of agencies and their ability to make science-based decisions that protect the public is now under question. This situation combined with a lack of transparency that has been characteristic of this administration puts us in a dangerous place.
We’ve already seen such appointments have implications for our health and safety. Over at the EPA, the pesticide industry is getting its wishes. Administrator Pruitt has gone against detailed and well-established scientific advice in failing to band a pesticide known to damage children’s brains and harmful to the health of farm workers and nearby residents.
Lastly and perhaps most disturbingly, the administration and Congress are seeking to destroy the very process by which we use science to make decision-making. In his first month, President Trump issued the two-for-one executive order that requires agencies to get rid of two rules for every new rule introduced based solely on cost, ignoring public benefit. The executive order is legally questionable and functionally absurd. Regulations are issued based on a threat that needs to be addressed. If agencies recognize a new threat and thus a need for a new rule, this doesn't negate past threats. If we discover a harmful chemical in baby bottles does that mean we should get rid of a seat belt rule or stop worrying about the potential for lead in lunch boxes?
These are separate threats, each with a need for a policy solution. We cannot feasibly or morally choose when to protect people and when to allow harm solely based on aims to minimize costs to industry. Congress too has been working to dismantle science-based decision-making at agencies. One such proposal, the Regulatory Accountability Act, would make it virtually impossible for federal agencies to issue new science-based rules. The proposed law would require agencies to jump through so many additional hoops that it would create even more red tape to propose a regulation. The process by which we make science-based policies are already painstakingly slow and provides ample opportunities for input from the public and stakeholders. Requiring that agencies amplify this already long process would severely limit our nation's ability to protect people from emerging threats.
We cannot allow this to stand. The damage being done in this administration could prevent us from using science to make informed policy decisions for years to come. We live in a nation of great innovation and technological resources. These scientific assets must continue to be used to improve the lives of Americans. We must tell this story. We must articulate the great benefits that science and scientific decisionmaking has had for the lives of people in this country and around the world. We must fight back against attacks that threaten this vital role of science. And we must never accept a country that chooses not to use science to protect its people. Our children deserve a future where we use that knowledge to benefit and protect people. We cannot afford anything else.