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Standing Up for Scientific Integrity
Over the past couple of years, the Trump administration has aggressively sidelined science in policymaking — whether by suppressing or misrepresenting evidence, undermining federal grants, or selecting unqualified and conflicted appointees to lead agencies and programs. As a result, our nation’s public health and well-being are suffering.
This week, the National Partnership for Women & Families, in collaboration with advocates from the health, environmental, scientific, and government accountability communities, released a new report, Protecting Science in Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help. The report details the numerous ways that this administration has prioritized political ideology over scientific integrity, interfering with people’s ability to make decisions about their health and lives and weakening public trust in the government.
Some of the most egregious examples of the administration ignoring and mischaracterizing research to suit their political agenda have happened in the area of reproductive health. In an October 2017 Interim Final Rule expanding exemptions for employers and universities not wishing to cover some or all forms of contraception, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other agencies misrepresented the extensive body of research on contraception and health, instead relying on junk science to claim that access to contraception lacks benefits and imposes risks on women’s health. The administration issued final rules based on the same false claims just last week.
HHS also cut short grants under the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, despite the fact that this program has been lauded by independent experts as a strong example of evidence-based policymaking. And HHS has undermined the Title X family planning program’s ability to support quality, evidence-based care by shifting resources toward abstinence-only education and natural family planning, as opposed to providers offering comprehensive family planning care for those most in need.
The Trump administration has also filled HHS leadership positions with people who lack the bare minimum of relevant and appropriate qualifications and who publicly oppose the mission of the agencies they lead. The most recent appointees for the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs at HHS — which oversees the Title X family planning program — have histories of promoting abstinence over comprehensive contraceptive care and advancing claims not supported by scientific evidence. Teresa Manning, who held the position from May 2017 to January 2018, previously claimed “contraception doesn’t work,” despite extensive evidence to the contrary. Her replacement, Diane Foley, previously served as executive director of an organization that promotes abstinence to middle and high school students with baseless claims such as “[b]ecoming sexually active before marriage makes it harder to have a good marriage later.” Foley has also falsely suggested that abortion is unsafe because this form of care is insufficiently regulated, despite extensive evidence of abortion’s safety and the fact that it is already more heavily regulated (and unnecessarily so) than health care services that carry greater risks.
This undermining of scientific integrity isn’t just limited to reproductive health issues — the administration has also cut themselves off from expert advice that could lead to cleaner air and safer workplaces, and has suppressed scientific information that could help national parks, families and communities be better protected from threats to the environment, health and the economy.
But the good news is that Congress has the power to protect scientific integrity in the policy process. Members of Congress can — and must — hold hearings and request investigations to determine when politics have taken priority over accurate scientific information. They can use the confirmation process to identify appointees who are unqualified, conflicted or show disrespect for science or agency missions. And we can use the power of our voices and our collective action to make sure our government knows that we won’t stand for actions that sideline science and threaten our health, safety, and lives.