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Ramifications of the Anti-Science Movement and Public Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kurt W. Smith
October 5, 2020

The anti-science movement continues to gain ground in the United States. It is reflected in skepticism toward things like vaccination in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and global warming. While there is much we can say about the causality of this phenomenon, it has tremendous negative implications for public policymakers and public support for such policies. Most policy positions are predicated upon some type of underpinning of the empirical sciences to determine what is correct based on knowable data. Absent the use of science, the alternatives are opinions, preferences often expressed by special interest groups, political inclinations and religious teachings. While some of these influences can seem benign or lead to choices simply more or less effective, some may have consequences that could lead to governance having a harder time serving and protecting its citizenry.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a frightening prospect of not being able to administer necessary public health measures based on feeling, opinions and unsubstantiated anecdotes that become widely circulated.

History shows us, for example, that stories of autism being linked to vaccination and other maladies with no basis in science continue to be widely circulated through social media and other platforms, creating public health challenges. In the state of Texas, it is estimated that there may be already as many as 100,000 children not vaccinated for measles operating within schools and other educational venues, prompting some public health officials to voice concern about a disease thought to be largely eradicated. Anti-vaccination fervor has risen from both sides of the political spectrum about the safety and efficacy of a vaccination program to eliminate COVID-19 from our population. This is occurring despite assurances from the healthcare industry that the science will be solid before the vaccine will be made available. Added to that is a deafness towards the cost/benefit that a national vaccination program provides towards its citizens.

While there are many social-political reasons for this growing anti-science movement, it will impact policies and programs related to public health in improving COVID-19, as well as in long-term impacts related to global warming. Global warming requires a sustained, cooperative and deliberate effort from policymakers across disciplines to ameliorate its effects.

Public administrators will be implementing policy related to both issues for generations to come. It will require increased efforts to educate and advocate for using empirical data and science in decisionmaking toward both the public and elected officials. It likely will require public administrators to make the case for using data and science in policymaking. It may require future administrators to justify why using science and data is a legitimate compass when crafting policy—or why a policy is implemented in a particular way.

There may also be an increased role for public educators to work with their students to increase confidence in science as a basis for understanding the world around them.

The Office of Research and Development within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) long has been regarded as our scientific backdrop, especially in emergencies. It studies health impacts and formulates possible solutions for everything from global warming to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2018, President Trump’s proposed budget would have slashed the Office of Research and Development’s funding in half and cut the entire agency’s budget by a third. The Office of Research and Development does not have statutory authority but involves its scientists in every area of policy in the EPA from infrastructure to air quality to water quality and everything in between. Gutting agencies like this is one more step, at the highest levels, toward flying blind when forming public policy. It can be dangerous in leaving policymakers and agencies uninformed about risks regarding health and safety for citizens.

If one can believe the premise that budgets reflect the government’s priorities, one can easily infer that—without some change—the anti-science movement is gaining strength in long-lasting ways. Every EPA regulation is based in science. Without the requisite measures and facts that sound science provides, new policies designed to protect the public cannot be assessed or defended. This produces a vacuum and, most likely, decisions put forward will reflect political preferences or short-term gains for certain industries.

Undoubtedly, all research centers within public administration will feel some impact and need to be more careful in the wake of anti-science fervor. They will need to be deliberate in how they communicate, and in some cases market, the validity of their work.

Author: Kurt Smith is a faculty member in the Political Science Department of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Dr. Smith has enjoyed a long career in government service. He received his undergraduate degree from Oregon State University, and earned his MPA and a PhD from North Carolina State University and is now teaching courses in government and public policy.

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