If the science community in the UK is noticing the embarrassing state of our public science offices, something must be seriously wrong. Helen Pearson has published a scathing story about the politicization of science at the CDC in the UK’s premier science journal Nature.
…But privately, CDC employees say they are demoralized by the reorganization because it has introduced extra bureaucracy, lowered the status of science and placed too much emphasis on ‘spin’. They say these changes, and the new corporate management style, are ill-suited to an agency that is supposed to investigate and protect public health. “The message from the current leadership is that the important scientific issues are decided elsewhere; we just have to look good to the media and not challenge conventional wisdom,” says one senior public-health researcher at the CDC.
The sour situation is thought to be one reason behind a wave of high-level departures: at least eight directors of the former national centres of expertise have left since 2004. The repercussions are being felt both nationally and internationally, because the CDC plays a central role in coordinating public health across state and local health departments, as well as international responses to emerging infectious diseases. “Most people in public health are very concerned to see this level of a brain drain in the CDC,” says Jeffrey Levi, head of Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC that works to promote disease prevention.
Observers lay some of the blame on the Bush administration, which they say encouraged the agency to focus on preparation for bio-terrorism at the expense of other needs. “All the emphasis was on terrorism, without willingness to recognize that the public-health infrastructure has been getting weaker for years,” says Anthony Robbins, a professor of public health at Tufts University in Boston. In the 2006 financial year, the CDC received funding boosts for bioterror and pandemic-flu planning while many chronic-disease prevention programmes were cut.
The accusation that politics is usurping science has also reared its head. Critics say pressure from the administration stops the agency from investigating pressing public-health issues, such as whether abstinence-only programmes work in the fight against HIV or whether junk food is fuelling the obesity epidemic. “There is not a feeling that science drives the agenda,” says a senior official who left the CDC more than five years ago. Others are critical of Gerberding herself for not resisting these political pressures and fighting for the agency’s agenda.
The fear now is for what would happen if the country had to deal with a public-health crisis. Many in the field draw parallels between the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the organization so heavily criticized over its inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. “Our preparedness has been deteriorating in fairly dramatic and drastic ways,” says Phyllis Freeman, who specializes in public-health policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.