US war on science ‘undermining war on coronavirus’

Derision of expertise has been concentrated in the US – but that’s where it matters most, say former Antipodean chief scientists

April 2, 2020
Penny Sackett

The US administration’s war on expertise is imperilling the country’s people and jeopardising the global fight against Covid-19, according to former Australian chief scientist Penny Sackett.

Professor Sackett, a Nebraska-born astronomer, said the “shocking” politicisation of science under Donald Trump was increasingly affecting the rest of the world.

“If the US becomes the epicentre for this epidemic and does nothing about it, that will have ramifications everywhere,” she said. “I say this as a dual citizen. How the US responds to this − both its response to science generally and its immediate health and policy response − affects the rest of the world.”

Australia has already felt the impacts of the US response. Most imported cases of Covid-19 came from there rather than from Asian neighbours including China. The US now has more infections than any other country, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus database.

President Trump has said that social distancing and other federal coronavirus regulations will now last until at least April 30, but has regularly decried the economic impacts of measures such as social distancing. “It’s like the cure is worse than the problem,” he told reporters.

A similar view can be found among the ranks of state and city leaders responsible for mandating lockdowns. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, said he was one of many senior citizens “willing to take a chance on survival” in order to maintain economic activity. “If that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” he told Fox News. “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living.”

Such an approach defied evidence, Professor Sackett said, and its consequences were “horrifying to think about”. She said Europe had already offered examples of where it would lead − not only for the US population but also for the help other countries could expect from the world’s long-standing science powerhouse, in vaccine development, for example.

“Italy basically can’t do anything except try to respond to the current health crisis.” She said a report that she had helped to commission as chief scientist had recommended that Australia cultivate a “strong stand-alone capability to produce its own vaccines”, partly because international scientific cooperation could falter during pandemics.

Professor Sackett’s successor as chief scientist, Ian Chubb, the former vice-chancellor of Australian National University, said he had not observed a widespread mistrust of science − notwithstanding former UK education secretary Michael Gove’s pronouncement during the Brexit campaign about Britons having “had enough of experts”.

But the US was an exception, Professor Chubb said, and that was “because of Trump”. Anti-science policies from a “particularly idiosyncratic president” had eroded the scientific data relied on by the rest of the world.

Professor Chubb said he had been “staggered” by the scale and effectiveness of American scientific facilities when he visited as chief scientist. “They were big; they were good; they were well funded; and they produced evidence publicly. A lot of the evidence upon which scientific advice is based came out of the US. That’s changed a lot.”

Professor Sackett said that, for decades, there had been bipartisan political support for US agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Nasa and the National Science Foundation. That had now changed, and the global supply of scientific data had been “scaled back”.

The $2.2 trillion (£1.8 trillion) stimulus package passed by the US Senate on 25 March includes $1.25 billion for federal research agencies working on the new coronavirus, along with some $14 billion for universities and students disrupted by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, a survey released the same day by the pollster Civiqs found that US views on the pandemic were polarised according to people’s political leanings, in every state. Nationally, just 20 per cent of Republican supporters said they were extremely concerned about local coronavirus outbreaks, compared with 58 per cent of Democrats.

Professor Sackett said the idea of expertise had become “tainted” in some circles. “The word ‘elite’ would get put in front of it to give it a different colour. What is really at danger here is the notion that it’s possible to know something, [of] trying to get to something as an underlying truth.

“The distinction between opinion, evidence, and opinion based on evidence has become almost totally blurred. That works for those trying to control the message, and a lot of politics is about trying to control the message. The thing about nature is you can’t control the message that way. Nature doesn’t change because you’re saying something different about nature.”

Former New Zealand chief scientific adviser Peter Gluckman said leaders of many countries had demonstrated a reluctance to focus on urgent health measures, fearing economic or political costs.

He criticised US rhetoric “bemoaning decisions made in the interest of public health” because they “do not meet technocratic and plutocratic interests”. And while the UK’s political response to the crisis had been haphazard, he said, its scientific advisory arrangements had a lot to admire.

“No other country has a structured public science advisory system for emergency, [and] Britain should be praised for being transparent about the advice it’s getting. Countries like New Zealand are not being transparent − Australia either.”

Professor Chubb said the UK government had pledged a “serious injection into the scientific base” in this year’s Budget and maintained support for the country’s long-standing climate change policy. He said European attitudes to research had been “mixed”.

“In parts of Europe, they’re knocking off the scientific community; and in other parts of Europe, they’re expanding it. But the biggest and most obvious shift has been in the US.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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