III. Pandemic in an Anti-Science Era: Reflections from and for STS
The Trump presidency and its relationship to science and truth have prompted both reflection and action by STS scholars, including contributors to a recent thematic collection published in early 2020 in Engaging Science, Technology, and Society. For this newsletter, we requested that the contributors to that collection re-visit the arguments made there in a series of brief commentaries in order to speak to our unfolding experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit the ESTS website to read the original collection, edited by Daniel Lee Kleinman, in addition to the commentary below.
Weathering the Storm? The Trump Administration Anti-Science Disaster & COVID-19
By Chris Rea, Ohio State University, and Scott Frickel, Brown University
As we wrote recently, the Trump administration looks to us like an anti-science disaster (Frickel and Rea, 2020). The White House response to the novel coronavirus pandemic largely confirms our assessment.
But as we also wrote, characterizing a disaster requires grappling with the difficult problem of baseline measurement: absent the opportunity to carefully pre-plan their research, how should scholars characterize the Trump anti-science disaster, and in this particular case, its effects on the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
One instructive path—and one we have been carefully pursuing in relation to environmental agencies—is to systematically assess the expertise and capacity of federal agencies through time, so as to better understand the baseline from which scientific expertise in the federal government are being eroded by the Trump Administration. Figure 1 compares aggregate employment change among agencies that protect the environment and manage natural resources against agencies at the center of the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus.
For more than 20 years, and more than in almost any other substantive area of governance, federal environmental agencies have steadily hemorrhaged employees. This suggests declining capacity to produce basic knowledge, craft well-designed regulations, and monitor and enforce existing rules and laws. Health related agencies have fared far better. From 1980 to 2018, NIH increased its employee corps by more than 40%, while the FDA doubled and CDC tripled their workforces. In these and other health agencies, the proportion of employees holding PhD degrees has increased several-fold as well.
There is more to unpack in these trend data – about state capacity, about expertise and autonomy, and about the erosive and accretive power of neoliberalism – than we have space to develop in this comment. So, the point we make here is a simple one. In the context of COVID-19, the Trump Administration anti-science disaster makes landfall upon a highly heterogenous landscape of government agencies.
For the long-eroded environmental state, COVID-19 presents yet another opportunity to gut regulations and push anti-science policies that agencies themselves are poorly equipped to resist.
For medical and public health-related agencies, however, the Trump anti-science disaster pushes up against robust, well-staffed, and highly scientized public organizations. Caveats aside, we strongly suspect that this administrative robustness is key to understanding why the federal response to COVID-19 has so far been driven to a remarkable degree by science and epidemiology in particular—even with an overtly anti-science administration at the helm.
This situation is dynamic; daily headlines make clear that the politicization of science as it relates to the novel coronavirus is only gaining steam. Still, a full assessment of the role of science in the U.S. response to the global COVID-19 pandemic must be rigorously attentive to baselines—and to the political and administrative histories that have produced them.