Experts Are Seriously Worried About Trump's Science Information Blackout. Here's Why
Early last week, news broke that the Trump administration had issued an information blackout for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency was directed to stop issuing press releases, posting to their social media pages, and speaking to members of the press or directly to the public.
The Boston Globe reported on Tuesday that EPA transition-team member Doug Ericksen expected the communications ban to be lifted by the end of last week. “We’re just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration,” he said.
On Thursday, however, USA Today reported that—although a temporary freeze on EPA research grants had been lifted—the “tight control on how the agency communicates with the public through social media and news outlets will remain in place for now.” The EPA has not published any press releases, or updated its Facebook or Twitter pages, since January 20. Calls and emails from Health to the agency’s press office were not immediately returned.
The EPA’s not the only science agency that’s been in the news, either: The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture were both given temporary gag orders last week, which have since been lifted. It also came to light last week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had canceled or postponed two conferences planned around the topics of climate change and LGBT youth. (These decisions were made before President Trump took office, the agency says.)
So what does this mean for our day-to-day health and safety?
The answer isn’t entirely clear, but public health experts are concerned about the messages being sent to the scientific community—and to American citizens—so far.
“The worry is generated by the administration’s willingness to censor information for what appears to be political purposes,” says Arthur Caplan, PhD, professor of bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. “There’s hinting that there could be requirements to clear things through political operatives before they get released to the public, and this type of thing hasn’t really been done before.”
Experts have serious concerns about the EPA’s uncertain future, and its policies regarding clean air, clean water, and climate change—all things that inevitably affect human health. But in addition to its research and environmental clean-up efforts, the EPA also communicates with the public about issues directly related to health and safety. For example, its Facebook page includes posts (pre-January 20) about the dangers of wood-smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, and radon—a gas that’s present in many homes and causes lung cancer.
If these types of media bans were to extend to other science agencies, the impacts on our health would likely be even greater. The CDC, for example, monitors the spread of illness and disease all over the world. “But this information really only matters to the extent that they are able to communicate it,” says Tara McKay, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University.
“If the CDC notices a big spike in flu hospitalizations, but isn’t able to provide any public messaging or prevention around this because of a gag order, then some people will die from infections that might have been avoided,” she says. “Resources will not be directed to the appropriate prevention, identification, and treatment activities.”
The CDC also plays an important role in decreasing panic around issues that really aren’t as scary as they seem. When Ebola virus was diagnosed in the United States in 2014, for example, the agency provided reassurance that treatment and prevention of transmission were top priorities.
At that time, Donald Trump criticized the government’s approach to the Ebola scare, advocating on Twitter for quarantines and travel bans not supported by scientific research. It's not outlandish to think that, as President, he might similarly go against—or try to change—the CDC’s recommendations in the event of another major health scare, says Caplan.
“If these agencies are seen as untrustworthy or censored, or they can’t get in a fast enough response, it can lead to widespread panic,” he says. That could mean unfair treatment of people seen as disease risks, he adds, or to a misallocation of resources that would make the situation worse.
“Nobody ever called up Steve Bannon or Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway to find out what to do about Zika; they want to know what the CDC says and they want to know fast,” Caplan continues. “These agencies shouldn’t have to wait to find out what the administration thinks in order to answer factual questions.”
Similar concerns would apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is tasked with warning the public about dangers posed by foods and medicines currently on store shelves. “We don’t want to worry about whether an E. coli outbreak is being covered up because you don’t want to see certain businesses being damaged, or exaggerated because it comes from a country you don’t like, like Mexico,” says Caplan.
The good news is, the CDC and FDA still appear to be functioning normally; both organizations are updating their social media sites, and the FDA put out a press release just Friday. And not everyone thinks the existing blackouts are cause for alarm: Last week the New York Times quoted several agency staff members who viewed the Trump directives as a normal part of a presidential transition.
Vox.com also points out that these agencies are protected by scientific integrity policies put in place by the Obama administration. The FDA’s policy, for example, states that staff is allowed to “communicate their personal scientific or policy views to the public, even when those views differ from official Agency opinions.” (As FiveThirtyEight reports, however, there’s also no legal consequence for violating these protections.)
With the exception of the EPA, there’s been no indication that government agencies won’t be able to continue studying and monitoring imminent health threats, including disease outbreaks and foodborne illnesses. (The EPA's research projects will reportedly be approved by the administration on a case-by-case basis.)
McKay is more concerned about the second part of both the FDA's and CDC's mission: to inform decision-makers about how to address these health concerns, and provide people with information so they can take responsibility for their own health.
“That second part is just as important, if not more so, than the first,” she says. “It does the agency little to know these things are happening and not be able to do or say anything about them.”