WHEN PRESIDENT Trump took office, there were worrisome signs of a disregard for scientific evidence in making public policy. He flirted with those who question the value of vaccines, was dismissive of global warming and celebrated fossil fuels extraction over environmental protection. One year later, the record is more of a mixed bag.
On Thursday, Robert Redfield Jr., the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a longtime AIDS researcher who was a professor at the University of Maryland, arrived at agency headquarters in Atlanta with a welcome emphasis on science and data in remarks to staff. He said of the CDC, “We’re not an opinion organization. We’re a science-based, data-driven organization. That’s why CDC has the credibility around the world that it has.” He spoke soundly about the value of vaccines, saying, “We have got to get the American public to understand that vaccination is important and needs to be fully utilized.” His remarks on the opioid emergency were also encouraging, acknowledging that it is “the public health crisis of our time.”
And he reaffirmed that the CDC must be prepared to respond to emerging threats at home and abroad, such as the Zika, influenza and Ebola viruses that have sown death and chaos in recent years. “I respect the mission we have, which is to be prepared for what we don’t expect,” he declared.
This is refreshing, especially after the unsettling reports three months ago that CDC employees were advised to avoid seven words or phrases in preparing the fiscal 2019 budget, including “evidence-based” and “science-based.” In the same spirit, the administrator of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, has taken positive steps to improve nutrition and fight smoking.
In other areas, the administration shuns science advice and good sense. There is still no director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — usually an important adviser to the president. Even more troubling is the anti-science approach to climate change and the environment. In recent days, Environmental Protection Agency staffers got “talking points” instructing them to discuss uncertainties about how human activity contributes to climate change. The points reflect scientifically unsound statements that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has made about the current state of climate research. One of the talking points claims that “clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do” about climate change. In fact, government scientists have found that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
One year into the Trump presidency, there are hopeful signs in some areas, such as public health. In others, especially on the environment and climate change, it appears that Mr. Trump’s approach is to willfully disregard the conclusions of the best science we have. Future generations will pay a heavy price.
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