The Nation’s Science and Health Agencies Face a Credibility Crisis: Can Their Reputations Be Restored?

Morale at federal science agencies -- and public trust in their guidance -- is at a concerning low right now.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

It didn't have to be this way. More than 200,000 Americans dead, seven million infected, with numbers continuing to climb, an economy in shambles with millions out of work, hundreds of thousands of small businesses crushed with most of the country still under lockdown. And all with no end in sight. This catastrophic result is due in large part to the willful disregard of scientific evidence and of muzzling policy experts by the Trump White House, which has spent its entire time in office attacking science.

One of the few weapons we had to combat the spread of Covid-19—wearing face masks—has been politicized by the President, who transformed this simple public health precaution into a first amendment issue to rally his base. Dedicated public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highly respected director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, have received death threats, which have prompted many of them around the country to resign.

Over the summer, the Trump White House pressured the Centers for Disease Control, which is normally in charge of fighting epidemics, to downplay COVID risks among young people and encourage schools to reopen. And in late September, the CDC was forced to pull federal teams who were going door-to-door doing testing surveys in Minnesota because of multiple incidents of threats and abuse. This list goes on and on.

Still, while the Trump administration's COVID failures are the most visible—and deadly—the nation's entire federal science infrastructure has been undermined in ways large and small.

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.
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On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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Biochemist Longxing Cao is working with colleagues at the University of Washington on promising research to disable infectious coronavirus in a person's nose.

UW

Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.

Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.

This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.