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Trump's budget director pick: “Do we really need government-funded research at all”

Mick Mulvaney suggested Zika science is uncertain, so we shouldn’t bother to fund it.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., asked during Congress’ Zika budget gridlock: “Do we really need government funded research at all.”
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

President Donald Trump recently picked Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to head the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Like many of Trump’s other Cabinet nominees, Mulvaney seems to have a disturbingly low opinion of science.

In a stunning September 9 Facebook post (that’s since been deleted but is still cached), Mulvaney asked, “... what might be the best question: do we really need government funded research at all.”

The post was written in the midst of a heated debate in Congress about how much more money to allocate to the fight against the Zika virus. It wasn’t clear whether Mulvaney, a budget hawk, was referring to all of the government’s scientific research or just to government-funded research on Zika. (We’ve asked his office for comment and haven’t heard back.)

But Mother Jones’s Pema Levy pointed out that Mulvaney exaggerated the uncertainty around the link between the birth defect microcephaly and Zika to cast doubt on the need for Zika research funding. His argument, in other words, was: Scientists aren’t sure what’s going on with Zika, so why do we need research? Here’s Mulvaney:

... before you inundate me with pictures of children with birth defects, consider this:

Brazil's microcephaly epidemic continues to pose a mystery — if Zika is the culprit, why are there no similar epidemics in countries also hit hard by the virus? In Brazil, the microcephaly rate soared with more than 1,500 confirmed cases. But in Colombia, a recent study of nearly 12,000 pregnant women infected with Zika found zero microcephaly cases. If Zika is to blame for microcephaly, where are the missing cases? According to a new report from the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), the number of missing cases in Colombia and elsewhere raises serious questions about the assumed connection between Zika and microcephaly.

Mulvaney is correct that at that time, there seemed to be fewer microcephaly cases in Colombia than researchers had anticipated. But he didn’t note the preliminary nature of the Colombia data, the discussion about the potential alternate causes of the country’s low number of birth defects at the time, or the fact that there was already scientific consensus about Zika’s terrible effect on fetuses.

Mulvaney cited this New England Journal of Medicine paper on Zika’s birth defects in Colombia as evidence to explain his doubt. Yet he missed the fact that the count from the country at that time was subject to change. “It’s somewhat reassuring” that there have been few severe birth defects in Colombia, lead author Margaret Honein, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, told Science, “but this is by no means final.” Unsurprisingly, we’ve since learned that there’s been a surge in Zika-related birth defects in Colombia, and that reporting errors were the reason for the initial gap.

Mulvaney also ignored the scientific consensus and mounting data on the link between the virus and birth defects. Months before his September Facebook post, the World Health Organization, the CDC, and other international health agencies and researchers were unequivocal about the correlation and were in the throes of exploring all the potential ways Zika harms fetuses.

If Mulvaney still has any lingering doubt that Zika causes birth defects, he should look at a more recent study in JAMA, also by Honein — who happens to be chief of the birth defects branch at the CDC. It documents all the birth defects caused by the virus in the United States. In that paper, Honein found that of the pregnant women in the US who tested positive for possible Zika infection, 6 percent had a fetus or infant with a Zika-related birth defect. Among women with first-trimester Zika infection, 11 percent had a fetus or infant with a birth defect.

Here’s Mulvaney’s full post:

It’s hard to know exactly how Mulvaney will approach science if he’s confirmed as head of the OMB, where he’d be charged with preparing the budget and overseeing the federal agencies. In the context of Trump’s other Cabinet picks — which include climate change deniers and advocates of intelligent design — his views on research are not reassuring at all.

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