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01/24/2017

Can Science Survive in a Communications Blackout: Restricting Speech Violates Scientific Ethics

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

That good ethics begins with good facts is an oft-heard mantra and was my first lesson when I began conducting clinical ethics consults 20 years ago. In the clinic, good facts come from many sources such as talking to health care providers, patients and families and from looking at test results. Empirical facts come from good science whether that is social science, bench science, health science, or theoretical science to name a few. The sharing of scientific facts, studies, and results is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Sharing your work allows for peer-review, for confirmation of the work, for challenges to other’s work, and for furthering the progress of other scientists. What if Watson and Crick had been forbidden from publishing on the double helix? Would we have the genetics revolution of today? What if the government scientists who created DARPA net had never been allowed to share their work? Would the internet exist?

According to several news reports, the new administration issued a gag order to research scientists in several executive branch agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health & Human Services, US Department of Agriculture’s Research Service, as well as the departments of the Interior and Transportation have been ordered to cease external communications and to funnel such desires to communicate through “leadership.”

This gag rule is more than simply limiting social media posts. It apparently means no communication with the media, Congress, blogs and press releases. This may extend to webinars, presenting at scientific conferences, and even scholarly publication since some agencies have been asked to submit lists of such external speaking engagements.

And it’s not just information coming from the government that is being restricted; the funding of science also appears to be under attack. ProPublica reports an EPA source stating that all grants and contracts have been suspended. These grants fund monitoring air and water quality as well as cleaning up toxic sites. The current candidate for budget director does not necessarily support government funding of science. This is a position that is supported by the conservative Cato Institute, which believes that science should be privately funded. However, without public funding, academic research disappears—research that benefits the many (instead of the few corporations that can afford it) disappears and basic science research (which furthers science but may not have commercial application for decades, if ever) disappears.

Part of academic freedom, which guarantees researchers in universities that they can choose their area of study, disappears. Many academic faculty are grant funded, usually government grants, for not only their work but their salaries. Universities count on the overhead from these grants to provide services to the researchers but also to fund educational programs like postdocs, grad students, undergraduate student lab workers, and even building labs. A freezing of government funding for science would decimate our ability to teach science and in the long run that will reduce the ability of the US to compete across the world.

The barrage of gag rules is also affecting health care. Trump has reinstated the “Mexico City rule” which forbids international agencies that receive US funding from performing or even mentioning abortion.

The silencing of health care providers and of the government, especially the scientific agencies on which the citizenry relies for clean, safe, and healthy environments is a violation of the social contract and social trust. Science relies on truth, evidence, and sharing information. As the largest funder of science in the world, if the administration has now decided to restrict such sharing, (and funding) then science and truth are in danger.

And if you thought you might want to let the White House know how you feel about this, or any other issue, you need to do so on Facebook since the White House comments telephone line has been closed.

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