In Texas, a scientist has just been forced to resign for having the audacity to be involved in a study exploring the policy implications of the state's decision to strip funding from Planned Parenthood. The situation is troubling not just for him, but for a larger political landscape, one in which conservatives have repeatedly (and sometimes very successfully) attempted to suppress or discredit science and researchers. To be effective, science must be neutral and depoliticized — and the GOP is turning critical issues into political footballs.
The study, released earlier this month, examined Medicaid claims for contraception and childbirth coverage in the wake of Texas' decision to defund Planned Parenthood. In the course of their research, the scientists found that claims for long-lasting contraception (injectables, IUDs) went down, and that patients were less likely to adhere to requirements that could keep their contraception viable — for example, they wouldn't show up on time for their next shot of injectable birth control. Rates of short-term birth control (like pills, patches, and rings) held steady. Claims for births paid for by Medicaid, meanwhile, increased.
It's important to note what this study does and doesn't show. It shows that trends in terms of pregnancy and contraception shifted after Texas passed a law stripping funds from a major provider of reproductive health services. Correlation isn't causation, and that's something the scientists themselves cautioned in their conclusions, saying: "The exclusion of Planned Parenthood affiliates from a state-funded replacement for a Medicaid fee-for-service program in Texas was associated with adverse changes in the provision of contraception." Note the key word there: "Associated." The research certainly seems to suggest that there may have been policy implications to the politically-motivated step to defund Planned Parenthood.
That's worrying, and it indicates the need for more research to follow up. For example, possibly more patients switched to short-term birth control or decided to get pregnant. Perhaps large numbers of patients no longer qualified for Medicaid or opted to pay in cash — and perhaps more patients qualified for Medicaid coverage for pregnancy. These are all things that need to be explored to get a complete picture of what happened here.
This is where the situation gets complicated. The lead (corresponding) researchers on the study were affiliated with the University of Texas, joined by researchers from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission as well as an attorney. One would think that this kind of research would be relevant to the activities of the Health and Human Services commission, but it didn't commission the study, nor was it involved in its administration. The researchers, Imelda Flores-Vazquez and Richard Allgeyer, weren't speaking for the agency.
State Senator Jane Nelson was infuriated by the study, calling it "misleading," and claiming that because it received funding from the Susan B. Buffett foundation, which is active in reproductive rights, it was invalid — despite the fact that the foundation played no role in the design of the study or its publication, simply providing grant funding to the researchers. A spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission claimed that access to reproductive health services in the state is increasing, saying that "funding for women's health is at an all-time high for Texas. We've substantially grown our provider network." The researchers disagreed, noting in their conclusions that there's an unmet need for these services.
Senator Nelson wasn't just upset about the study results — she used them as a springboard to attack the researchers from the Health and Human Services Commission. She demanded that they be disciplined for their involvement — though Allgeyer has been with the agency for over 20 years and is a highly-ranked research administrator.
Teddy Wilson at RH Reality Check explains that this is not the first time Senator Nelson has promoted policies that restrict reproductive rights in Texas. The agency agreed with her assessment that the researchers should be subjected to penalties for doing their job: Exploring and discussing trends in public health care.
Now, Allgeyer is "resigning" under a cloud — the agency claims that he was violating policy by working outside the Health and Human Services Commission without permission. Many government agencies have similar policies — and some also have gag orders requiring that employees not comment on political and social issues (e.g. law clerks are usually subject to discipline if they make political endorsements, even if they make it explicit that these endorsements do not come from the judges and attorneys they work with).
He may have violated policy, but the severity of his punishment is somewhat uncalled-for. The employment status of Flores-Vazquez is unknown, but as a woman of color in a junior position, the odds are probably not looking good for her.
This is disturbing. It's disturbing to see a scientist forced out of a job simply because he was involved in research that arrived at conclusions the GOP didn't like. However, it's far from the first time that the GOP has attempted to muzzle scientists and suppress research. Under the Bush administration in particular, the Union of Concerned Scientists tracked a laundry list of violations of what should be a clear, bright line between science and politics.
These included shutting down studies and researchers, limiting media access, misstating and distorting information, hindering aviation safety, and much, much more — including failure to protect children from lead poisoning.
This hasn't stopped under the Obama Administration, however, making it clear that this isn't just a GOP problem, but a political one. Scientists claim that they have been pressured to withhold or misstate results, and say that whistleblowers are not being provided with adequate protections. Climate change under both Bush and Obama Administrations has been a particularly popular topic for suppression, but it's far from the only one — environmental and public health have been targeted as well as research on everything from bioethics to salmon fisheries.
Some of that pressure has come from within political parties on policy and research they don't like because it contradicts personal views, like the notion that climate change doesn't exist or that people shouldn't have control of their own reproductive health. It's also come from outside the government in the form of heavy-hitters in various industries pushing the government to suppress researchers and agencies making rulings — as for example in the case of the coal industry's close ties with both Bush and Obama's White Houses and subsequent interference in research and public statements on the subject.
Suppressing science is a huge problem. Science, as an ideal, should be neutral. The goal is to make and test a hypothesis, to explore something that's happening in the world, to gather testable data. No study is decisive, with research building on itself as people explore the implications of other studies, repeat and test data, and challenge their peers. Science is a complicated world, and one of the most sacrosanct parts of science must be neutrality and freedom from political influence.
As soon as scientists are subject to pressure to spin results, or penalties when they speak out, it makes their work unreliable, and it undermines faith in the agencies they work for. It compromises what science should stand for and creates precedents that will only compound themselves, as compromised study results circulate and lead to more compromised study results. We cannot suppress science, for in doing so, we fail society.
Sometimes the results of research don't say what we want them to — even researchers arrive upon unexpected conclusions. That's how it works in science, and part of what makes science so wonderful. It forces us to expand our understanding of the world, putting beliefs and attitudes up against hard research. The body of research in support of climate change, for example, stands up against the insistence that it's not a problem, as well as the handful of sketchy studies claiming otherwise. Notably, some of the evidence for climate change comes from within the GOP itself — which is a sign of scientific integrity, that researchers are directly going against the will of the party that's commissioning or being involved in the commission of their work.
Allgeyer and Flores-Vazquez worked on this study because they were doing their job as public health researchers, learning more about a potential social issue to draw attention to the problem and provide a basis for more research and policy discussion. Punishing them for it sends a signal to other researchers as well as people in government who might want to promote policy that contradicts with agency heads: Go along with us, or lose your jobs.
Image credit: Charlotte Cooper/CC