Science, sidelined by Trump administration, getting more attention because of COVID-19, University of Iowa toxicologist says

'Science needs to guide our decision making,' professor Peter Thorne says

Peter Thorne is photographed July 21 at the College of Public Health on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Thor
Peter Thorne is photographed July 21 at the College of Public Health on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Thorne is a toxicologist and UI professor who served six years on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa toxicologist Peter Thorne, who served six years on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board, is frustrated President Donald Trump’s administration has sidelined science at a time when climate change and COVID-19 require broad, deep — and rapid — scientific study.

“The science needs to guide our decision making,” said Thorne, professor and head of Occupational and Environmental Health and director of the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center at the UI. “It’s much more effective to prevent catastrophes than respond to them. It saves a lot of money and it saves us a lot of suffering.”

Science sidelined

Thorne, who runs a UI research laboratory focusing on environmental risk factors for asthma, health effects of inhaled air pollutants and inflammatory lung diseases, among other work, served on the EPA Science Advisory Board for six years, ending in 2017.

For the last two years of his tenure, he was chairman of the panel that vets science used by the EPA to make decisions to protect human health and the environment.

In 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced new rules barring scientists from receiving EPA grant funding while serving on key advisory boards — discouraging some of the best scientists from applying, Thorne told National Public Radio in 2017.

“I served for nine months after the inauguration of Mr. Trump,” Thorne said in an interview with The Gazette. “We saw a lot of change in the Science Advisory Board at that time.”

The Trump administration has disbanded some science advisory groups and replaced scientists with members from industry groups, such as the oil and gas industry.

These changes have resulted in industry-friendly decisions, Thorne said, such as a July 13 recommendation to maintain air pollution standards for ozone rather than adopting stricter standards favored by most scientists.


“All the major professional societies strongly urged them to make a reduction, to make it more protective, but the perception is they loaded the committee with people who don’t have the experience to evaluate the science,” Thorne said. “Then they didn’t follow normal procedures for comment period. Then chose to keep the standard where it is.”

Climate action needed

Thorne, who will teach an undergraduate course this fall called “Climageddon: Climate Change and Health,” said time is running out for the U.S. and other major countries to make changes to reduce the impact of global warming.

An increase of 2 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures not only will melt Greenland and Antarctic ice, raising sea levels, but will cause dangerous heat waves in much of the world. Such conditions also bring extreme risks of drought, severe weather, wildfires and water shortages, NASA reported.

“There’s also the social justice and environmental justice side,” Thorne said. “When we make decisions about COVID-19 and climate change, it has differential effects on different parts of society. People of color are experiencing the burden of climate change and the burden of COVID.”

Consequences of ignoring science

Thorne thinks COVID-19 has helped the public better understand the role good science plays in political and economic decisions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become a celebrity for speaking frankly to President Donald Trump about wearing masks and taking other preventive measures against the virus that causes COVID-19. Americans also are actively seeking information from credible health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association.

“We are seeing the dire consequences of ignoring the science and missing opportunities for prevention and early action,” Thorne said.

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