The norms around science and politics are cracking

https://www.axios.com/science-politics-norms-cracking-f67bcff2-b399-44f4-8827-085573f5ae52.html

Illustration of a hand holding a cracked microscope slide containing the U.S. flag.

Crafting successful public health measures depends on the ability of top scientists to gather data and report their findings unrestricted to policymakers.

State of play: But concern has spiked among health experts and physicians over what they see as an assault on key science protections, particularly during a raging pandemic. And a move last week by President Trump, via an executive order, is triggering even more worries.

What’s happening: If implemented, the order creates a “Schedule F” class of federal employees who are policymakers from certain agencies who would no longer have protection against being easily fired— and would likely include some veteran civil service scientists who offer key guidance to Congress and the White House.

  • Those agencies might handle the order differently, and it is unclear how many positions could fall under Schedule F — but some say possibly thousands.
  • “This much-needed reform will increase accountability in essential policymaking positions within the government,” OMB director Russ Vought tells Axios in a statement.

What they’re saying: Several medical associations, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America, strongly condemned the action, and Democrats on the House oversight panel demanded the administration “immediately cease” implementation.

  • “If you take how it’s written at face value, it has the potential to turn every government employee into a political appointee, who can be hired and fired at the whim of a political appointee or even the president,” says University of Colorado Boulder’s Roger Pielke Jr.
  • Protections for members of civil service allow them to argue for evidence-based decision-making and enable them to provide the best advice, says CRDF Global’s Julie Fischer, adding that “federal decision-makers really need access to that expertise — quickly and ideally in house.”

Between the lines: Politics plays some role in science, via funding, policymaking and national security issues.

  • The public health system is a mix of agency leaders who are political appointees, like HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and career civil servants not dependent on the president’s approval, like NIAID director Anthony Fauci.
  • “Public health is inherently political because it has to do with controlling the way human beings move around,” says University of Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Moreno.

Yes, but: The norm is to have a robust discussion — and what has been happening under the Trump administration is not the norm, some say.

  • “Schedule F is just remarkable,” Pielke says. “It’s not like political appointees editing a report, [who are] working within the system to kind of subvert the system. This is an effort to completely redefine the system.”
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Stephen Morrison says that the administration has been defying normative practices, including statements denigrating scientists, the CDC and FDA.

The big picture: Public trust in scientists,which tends to be high, is taking a hit, not only due to messaging from the administration but also from public confusion over changes in guidance, which vacillated over masks and other suggestions.

  • Public health institutions “need to have the trust of the American people. In order to have the trust of the American people, they can’t have their autonomy and their credibility compromised, and they have to have a voice,” Morrison says.
  • “If you deny CDC the ability to have briefings for the public, and you take away control over authoring their guidance, and you attack them and discredit them so public perceptions of them are negative, you are taking them out of the game and leaving the stage completely open for falsehoods,” he adds.
  • “All scientists don’t agree on all the evidence, every time. But what we do agree on is that there’s a process. We look at what we know, we decide what we can clearly recommend based on what we know, sometimes when we learn more, we change our recommendations, and that’s the scientific process,” Fischer says.

What’s next: The scientific community is going to need to be proactive on rebuilding public trust in how the scientific process works and being clear when guidance changes and why it has changed, Fischer says.

The U.S. is way behind on coronavirus contact tracing. Here’s how we can catch up.

The U.S. is way behind on coronavirus contact tracing. Here’s how we can catch up.

The US is amassing an army of contact tracers to contain the covid ...

Get this: Vietnam, a country of 97 million people, has reported zero deaths from only 372 cases of coronavirus.

Theories abound about how they pulled it off. But public health experts chalk it up to swift action by the Vietnamese government, including contact tracing, mass testing, lockdowns, and compulsory wearing of masks.

Here, masks have become a political landmine. And despite President Trump claiming, “We have the greatest testing program anywhere in the world,” some states with surging infections have testing shortages—like Arizona.

But what about contact tracing, the process of calling potentially exposed people and persuading them to quarantine?

“I don’t think we’re doing very well,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when asked in June about contact tracing nationwide. Most states haven’t even made public how fast or well they’re implementing the process, if at all.

Florida, the nation’s current No. 1 hotspot for the virus, is often failing to trace positive cases. This, despite the state spending over $27 million on a contract with Maximus, a company notorious for underbidding, understaffing, and performing poorly on government services contracts in multiple states.

Yet, there are bright spots elsewhere. California allocated 5 percent of staff across 90 state government departments to contact trace. North Carolina’s Wake County trained 110 librarians. In Massachusetts, counties have used state pandemic funds to hire more nurses.

There are three reasons why state and local governments should reassign public employees or hire new staff outright as the country—finally—ramps up contact tracing.

One, outsourcing what should be a public job to for-profit companies like Maximus reduces transparencylimits democratic decision-makinglowers service quality, and increases inequality, all while rarely saving public dollars. Public control is particularly important when it comes to contact tracing, which involves personal health data.

Two, this is a chance to begin to reverse decades of cuts to public health budgets, which have made the worst public health crisis in a century even worse. Almost a quarter of the local public health workforce has been let go since 2008. Federal spending on nondefense discretionary programs like public health is now at a historic low.

The Trump administration, as expected, is headed in the wrong direction. On Tuesday, it stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of control over coronavirus data. State and local governments must do all they can to right the ship.

And three, contact tracing is an opportunity to chip away at systemic racism. Since World War II, public sector employment has helped equalize American society by offering workers of color stable, well-paid employment. The median wage earned by Black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in private industries.

Privatizing public work like contact tracing contributes to racial and gender income disparities. Workers at federal call centers operated by Maximus, for example, are predominately women and people of color paid poverty wages as low as $10.80 an hour with unaffordable health care.

If #BlackLivesMatter—as many governors and mayors across the country have proclaimed in recent weeks—then contact tracing should be treated as what it is: a public good.

To catch up to other countries like Vietnam, the U.S. needs to get contact tracing right—and that means doing it with public workers.