The Nation’s Science and Health Agencies Face a Credibility Crisis: Can Their Reputations Be Restored?
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
It didn't have to be this way. More than 200,000 Americans dead, seven million infected, with numbers continuing to climb, an economy in shambles with millions out of work, hundreds of thousands of small businesses crushed with most of the country still under lockdown. And all with no end in sight. This catastrophic result is due in large part to the willful disregard of scientific evidence and of muzzling policy experts by the Trump White House, which has spent its entire time in office attacking science.
One of the few weapons we had to combat the spread of Covid-19—wearing face masks—has been politicized by the President, who transformed this simple public health precaution into a first amendment issue to rally his base. Dedicated public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highly respected director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, have received death threats, which have prompted many of them around the country to resign.
Over the summer, the Trump White House pressured the Centers for Disease Control, which is normally in charge of fighting epidemics, to downplay COVID risks among young people and encourage schools to reopen. And in late September, the CDC was forced to pull federal teams who were going door-to-door doing testing surveys in Minnesota because of multiple incidents of threats and abuse. This list goes on and on.
Still, while the Trump administration's COVID failures are the most visible—and deadly—the nation's entire federal science infrastructure has been undermined in ways large and small.
The White House has steadily slashed monies for science—the 2021 budget cuts funding by 10–30% or more for crucial agencies like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—and has gutted health and science agencies across the board, including key agencies of the Department of Energy and the Interior, especially in divisions that deal with issues they oppose ideologically like climate change.
Even farmers can't get reliable information about how climate change affects planting seasons because the White House moved the entire staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency who does this research, relocating them from Maryland to Kansas City, Missouri. Many of these scientists couldn't uproot their families and sell their homes, so the division has had to pretty much start over from scratch with a skeleton crew.
More than 1,600 federal scientists left government in the first two years of the Trump Administration, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, and one-fifth of top positions in science are vacant, depriving agencies of the expertise they need to fulfill their vital functions. Industry executives and lobbyists have been installed as gatekeepers—HHS Secretary Alex Azar was previously president of Eli Lilly, and three climate change deniers were appointed to key posts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to cite just a couple of examples. Trump-appointed officials have sidelined, bullied, or even vilified those who dare to speak out, which chills the rigorous debate that is the essential to sound, independent science.
"The CDC needs to be able to speak regularly to the American people to explain what it knows and how it knows it."
Linda Birnbaum knows firsthand what it's like to become a target. The microbiologist recently retired after more than a decade as the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is the world's largest environmental health organization and the greatest funder of environmental health and toxicology research, a position that often put her agency at odds with the chemical and fossil fuel industry. There was an attempt to get her fired, she says, "because I had the nerve to write that science should be used in making policy. The chemical industry really went after me, and my last two years were not so much fun under this administration. I'd like to believe it was because I was making a difference—if I wasn't, they wouldn't care."
Little wonder that morale at federal agencies is low. "We're very frustrated," says Dr. William Schaffner, a veteran infectious disease specialist and a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. "My colleagues within these agencies, the CDC rank and file, are keeping their heads down doing the best they can, and they hope to weather this storm."
The cruel irony is that the United States was once a beacon of scientific innovation. In the heady post World War II years, while Europe lay in ruins, the successful development of penicillin and the atomic bomb—which Americans believed helped vanquish the Axis powers—unleashed a gusher of public money into research, launching an unprecedented era of achievement in American science. Scientists conquered polio, deciphered the genetic code, harnessed the power of the atom, invented lasers, transistors, microchips and computers, sent missions beyond Mars, and landed men on the moon. A once-inconsequential hygiene laboratory was transformed into the colossus the National Institutes of Health has become, which remains today the world's flagship medical research center, unrivaled in size and scope.
At the same time, a tiny public health agency headquartered in Atlanta, which had been in charge of eradicating the malaria outbreaks that plagued impoverished rural areas in the Deep South until the late 1940s, evolved into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC became the world's leader in fighting disease outbreaks, and the agency's crack team of epidemiologists—members of the vaunted Epidemic Intelligence Service—were routinely dispatched to battle global outbreaks of contagions such as Ebola and malaria and help lead the vaccination campaigns to eradicate killers like polio and small pox that have saved millions of lives.
What will it take to rebuild our federal science infrastructure and restore not only the public's confidence but the respect of the world's scientific community? There are some hopeful signs that there is pushback against the current national leadership, and non-profit watchdog groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists have mapped out comprehensive game plans to restore public trust and the integrity of science.
These include methods of protecting science from political manipulation; restoring the oversight role of independent federal advisory committees, whose numbers were decimated by recent executive orders; strengthening scientific agencies that have been starved by budget cuts and staff attrition; and supporting whistleblower protections and allowing scientists to do their jobs without political meddling to restore integrity to the process. And this isn't just a problem at the CDC. A survey of 1,600 EPA scientists revealed that more than half had been victims of political interference and were pressured to skew their findings, according to research released in April by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"Federal agencies are staffed by dedicated professionals," says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former fisheries biologist for NOAA. "Their job is not to serve the president but the public interest. Inspector generals are continuing to do what they're supposed to, but their findings are not being adhered to. But they need to hold agencies accountable. If an agency has not met its mission or engaged in misconduct, there needs to be real consequences."
On other fronts, last month nine vaccine makers, including Sanofi, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca, took the unprecedented stop of announcing that their COVID-19 vaccines would be thoroughly vetted before they were released. In their implicit refusal to bow to political pressure from the White House to have a vaccine available before the election, their goal was to restore public confidence in vaccine safety, and ensure that enough Americans would consent to have the shot when it was eventually approved so that we'd reach the long-sought holy grail of herd immunity.
"That's why it's really important that all of the decisions need to be made with complete transparency and not taking shortcuts," says Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and former director of the CDC during the H1N1, Ebola, and Zika emergencies. "A vaccine is our most important tool, and we can't break that tool by meddling in the science approval process."
In late September, Senate Democrats introduced a new bill to halt political meddling in public health initiatives by the White House. Called Science and Transparency Over Politics Act (STOP), the legislation would create an independent task force to investigate political interference in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. "The Trump administration is still pushing the president's political priorities rather than following the science to defeat this virus," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a press release.
To effectively bring the pandemic under control and restore public confidence, the CDC must assume the leadership role in fighting COVID-19. During previous outbreaks, the top federal infectious disease specialists like Drs. Fauci and Frieden would have daily press briefings, and these need to resume. "The CDC needs to be able to speak regularly to the American people to explain what it knows and how it knows it," says Frieden, who cautions that a vaccine won't be a magic bullet. "There is no one thing that is going to make this virus go away. We need to continue to limit indoor exposures, wear masks, and do strategic testing, isolation, and quarantine. We need a comprehensive approach, and not just a vaccine."
We must also appoint competent and trustworthy leaders, says Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Top posts in too many science agencies are now filled by former industry executives and lobbyists with a built-in bias, as well as people lacking relevant scientific experience, many of whom were never properly vetted because of the current administration's penchant for bypassing Congress and appointing "acting" officials. "We've got great career people who have hung in, but in so much of the federal government, they just put in 'acting' people," says Linda Birnbaum. "They need to bring in better, qualified senior leadership."
Open positions need to be filled, too. Federal science agencies have been seriously crippled by staffing attrition, and the Trump Administration instituted a hiring freeze when it first came in. Staffing levels remain at least ten percent down from previous levels, says Birnbaum and in many agencies, like the EPA, "everything has come to a screeching halt, making it difficult to get anything done."
But in the meantime, the critical first step may be at the ballot box in November. Even Scientific American, the esteemed consumer science publication, for the first time in its 175-year history felt "compelled" to endorse a presidential candidate, Joe Biden, because of the enormity of the damage they say Donald Trump has inflicted on scientists, their legal protections, and on the federal science agencies.
"If the current administration continues, the national political leadership will be emboldened and will be even more assertive of their executive prerogatives and less concerned about traditional niceties, leading to further erosion of the activities of many federal agencies," says Vanderbilt's William Schaffner. "But the reality is, if the team is losing, you change the coach. Then agencies really have to buckle down because it will take some time to restore their hard-earned reputations."
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Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.