Q & A with an accountability expert

Anita Desikan, research analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

You investigate the role of science in public policy, with emphasis on federal agencies, and political interference in the scientific rulemaking process. What does that mean for you these days?

As a scientist I evaluate policy through a scientific lens that’s founded on evidence to back up statements and actions, but these days, we are seeing that the best available science isn’t being adopted by this administration. My colleagues and I have been quite busy recording the numerous attacks on science by the current administration and commenting on all of it, from the censoring of experts and scientific reports to a record disbandment of scientific advisory committees. So far, we have 148 examples of sidelining scientific evidence and threats to critical policies such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.  When such regulations are ignored the negative effects typically disproportionately impact communities of color and indigenous people.

How has this administration handled the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other outbreaks in recent administrations?

We released a report on the first couple of months into the outbreak analyzing the Center for Disease Control’s ability to communicate with the public at the start of the pandemic and we found CDC experts were restricted from sharing timely, accurate information with the public. This wasn’t the case in the timeline of previous epidemics, whether it was SARS under the Bush administration or H1N1 under the Obama administration. In the current administration, after early March, CDC experts were shunted from speaking with the public, practically shut out of press briefings. With subsequent actions, it’s clear this administration has been upping its game on how to suppress CDC scientists by burying or restricting the agency’s guidelines on travel and how and when to reopen the economy. [Vice President] Pence recently announced they would be asking CDC to rewrite its school reopen policy even though the agency had already issued their own policy, with evidence-based recommendations.

The U.S. has dealt with several epidemics in previous years and the 1918 influenza pandemic. What bothers you the most about this particular one?

It bothers me immensely that COVID-19 numbers are skyrocketing, yet dismissing science has fueled every single step in our government’s response. This administration has been so dismissive of the advice of scientists that during the worst pandemic in our lifetime it continued to do so. This pattern is entrenched in the administration, from Trump’s claim that the virus would go away by April to emphasis on reopening the economy too quickly; when we don’t listen to scientists it could be a matter of life or death. The U.S.’s response to the pandemic has been abysmal compared to other countries like South Korea that had very aggressive testing or Germany, that have brought COVID-19 under control. But we still can act. We should continue social distancing and really try to flatten the curve. Under any other administration, we would have had a different outcome, there would have probably been more consideration given to the severity of the virus and proactive steps to curtail the spread early on.

UCS published a report examining science integrity in federal policymaking in the peer-reviewed Journal of Science Policy & Governance in 2018. Has anything changed since then?

In that report our team analyzed every administration from the Eisenhower presidency (1953 to 1961) to Trump’s, taking a deep look into whether the administration was able to listen to scientists, and we found out that each administration censored science to some extent. Plus, the violation of scientific integrity happens across various agencies too regardless of the administration. What is different with this administration is the scale of the violations. The research underscored why Congress should pass the Scientific Integrity Act which would give teeth to federal agencies’ own scientific policies by ensuring scientists are able to communicate about their work freely to the public without fear of retaliation.

What are your thoughts on the public’s perception of science and scientists during this pandemic?

Every day folks should be aware they are not getting the full picture. The changing guidelines around the wearing of masks come to mind. At the beginning of the pandemic personal protective equipment were limited to medical workers because they were in such short supply. Then it was proven that the masks help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and then they became more readily available, but Trump opted not to wear one. The public should be aware that scientists can’t communicate freely about science any more, that instead they are forced to communicate through a political lens, which is problematic to say the least.

Are there any areas you would like to see more journalistic depth of coverage during the pandemic?

Journalists are doing their best in a very unusual period, trying to report the news while figuring out how epidemiology works. There’s a lot of disinformation going on, and some media outlets are reporting on this, but it might be better to go more in-depth and further explore confirmation bias and the role it plays in this era because the actors who spread disinformation know that it is itself an epidemic. For example, some people are less likely to think mask-wearing is good depending on the type of media they consume. UCS has put together an online resource on how disinformation takes root, how to spot it, and help stop the spread of COVID-19.

There have been widespread protests in recent weeks over police killing of African Americans that have also inspired tough conversations within organizations. Have these developments affected UCS’s work in any way?

We recently had an African American employee who quit and pointed out ways UCS hadn’t taken action to support people of color even as the organization publicly condemned the murder of George Floyd and the police brutality that occurs in cities across the U.S. We welcomed the opportunity to take a closer look at our organizational culture and improve by dismantling the aspects of it that normalize white culture.

Are there specific chemical safety issues you are paying close attention to we should be aware of?

PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are man-made chemicals that contaminate drinking water and groundwater. They are used in take-out containers, nonstick cookware, food packaging, and have been associated with many serious illnesses, including cancers, reproductive disorders and immunological issues. Although we are all exposed to them, communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to be harmed by this class of toxic chemicals because of closer proximity to sites contaminated with PFAS. We are pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to take action and regulate PFAS as hazardous substances, which the administration has failed to do.

Another chemical is ethylene oxide (EtO), a known carcinogen used to sterilize medical equipment. In the face of the pandemic, the EPA announced it would increase sterilization capacity for several medical equipment facilities, even though EtO is not typically used to sterilize masks for reuse. This poses safety risks for healthcare workers and for communities near industrial corridors where these equipment plants and factories operate.  We are pushing for safer alternatives that do not needlessly expose communities to additional cancer-causing EtO emissions.

What is UCS’s stance on public health and safety during the upcoming election?

We just released an analytical report detailing how to protect public health during the election. As advocates for the right to vote, UCS is urging states to take measures to limit polling place congestion and increase absentee ballot access. We believe Americans should be able to vote safely in November, and states must prepare now to make this possible as a fundamental issue of public health and democracy.