Evidence-Based Policy

Suraj Patel
Mar 26, 2018 · 8 min read
Image for post
Image for post
(Photo by Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash)

Science is the only way to solve our biggest problems. For everything from climate change to transportation, to healthcare and housing — a growing population can’t be served by reallocating resources. We need breakthroughs. We need paradigm shifts. If we want to leave our country in better condition for the next generation, we need innovation and disruption.

But now more than ever, the valuable contributions of scientific research in our nation are in peril and the Trump Administration’s obvious disregard for science endangers every American.

This administration has installed unqualified, politicized individuals in government positions that should be held by scientists. In just one year, this administration has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, banned immigrants from countries that send a disproportionate number of scientists to America, withheld funding from important research and programs, reintroduced fracking, censored scientific findings, and approved harmful pesticides — just to name a few things.

As someone who deeply respects scientists, academics, and facts, my approach in Congress will move our country towards evidence-based policymaking and return scientific endeavor to the forefront of our national public policy. We must create a better future by elevating scientists today.

Lastly, democracy requires a shared set of facts. Objective truth does exist and we can’t succumb to the temptations of echo chambers and shared falsehoods if we want to return to a healthy democracy. It’s time our representatives respect the value of empirical research, deductive reasoning, and facts.

Below are a few of my specific concerns and priorities:

  1. Scientists and their findings should be protected, not attacked.

Scientists must be protected from harassment, whether it comes in the form of lawsuits attacking climate research or anti-science protests demonizing proven-effective advances in medicine. Too often, scientists whose findings are unwelcome to political or commercial interests face harassment and threats — and they may even find themselves having to defend their work and their privacy in court.

Lawmakers have become complicit in an ongoing war on science, attacking scientists during congressional hearings, politicizing government-funded research, and even trying to legally limit access to the findings of scientific studies — information that should be available to any curious mind that wants to learn from and build on existing knowledge.

Knowledge is power, and when citizens and communities are denied access to scientific knowledge, they are effectively disempowered. For this reason, transparency, access to information, and the public’s right to know are pivotal issues for science and democracy.

The Trump Administration threatens our efforts in New York to create a more inclusive and sustainable city. We have an obligation to fight for and advance our city’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase resilience against climate change, create a city open to all people, and provide innovative and affordable health care.

Unfortunately, our current representative has been unable or unwilling to stand up to Trump’s anti-science crusade, partly because she harbors her own anti-science views.

Our district and our city must be leading the country on evidence-based, fact-first policy and scientific empowerment, rather than being complicit in questioning sound science.

2. Science and policy are intrinsically linked, and scientific research should not rely on funding from corporations and private interest groups.

Empirical evidence is imperative in all policy making, from climate and infrastructure to education and economics, a shared set of facts and that these problems exist are the first step to solving our biggest problems.

But today, it’s impossible to hear the voice of fact, reason, and science over the misinformation spread by people whose bottom lines depend on misleading the public. This is how we wind up with vanishing environmental protections, anti-vaccine pseudoscience, and calamitous failures on climate policy.

Our health and safety is increasingly jeopardized by this widespread political corruption. We need elected officials who will turn down corporate PAC money, refuse to cave to anti-fact lobbyists, expose misinformation, defend scientists, and demand transparency and access in government-funded research.

The United States ranks tenth in the world for percentage of GDP invested in research and development (only 0.78% as of 2014). contributions to cutting-edge scientific discovery hit an all-time low in 2015. The private sector is now the dominant contributor to research activity, funding 72% of all research and development and spending $3 on research for every $1 spent by the United States government.

Investing in basic research is imperative to close scientific knowledge gaps. Businesses, however, typically have a greater interest in funding applied research. While applied research develops solutions to specific problems that can be quickly and easily monetized, it generally doesn’t produce significant advances in our scientific knowledge. Incentivizing businesses to fund more general basic research could be a path to provide broad scientific advances that can be built upon for greater good.

The cuts proposed in the he 2018 budget put the Department of Energy and Department of Health and Human Services at risk of an 18% decrease in funding. Basic energy sciences, environmental research, infrastructure, workforce development for teachers and scientists, the National Institutes of Health, and more would suffer tremendously as result. Unsurprisingly, the exception to the proposed cuts is the National Nuclear Security Administration which would receive a budget increase of 11.4% to modernize and upkeep nuclear weapons and naval nuclear reactors.

Scientific funding is again on the chopping block for the 2019 budget. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is specifically targeted in the proposal, cutting its 2017 budget by 75%, the lowest level since the early 1990’s. As human beings we have a moral obligation to reject this defunding. We need to reach across divides and get everyone back on the same team — a team dedicated to the future of our planet, our economy, and the wellbeing of our citizens.

3. The efficacy of vaccines should not be up for debate.

Vaccines are at the center of the ongoing assault on science. Anti-vaxxer arguments are nothing new, dating back to before the founding of this country. Due to the medical progress made through vaccinations, our society has lost touch with the harsh reality of diseases that were once a greater threat. Low rates of disease instance undermine the threat with which infectious diseases can cross borders and infect our population. In 2000, Measles was considered eliminated in the United States, but due largely to intentionally unvaccinated children, there were 667 cases of measles in 23 outbreaks in 2014. In 2015, there were 133 deaths (mostly children) in the United States. These outbreaks and deaths could have been prevented through proper vaccination.

Vaccines prevent 2–3 million deaths worldwide per year, not including the 5 million annual deaths prevented by the eradication of smallpox. For vaccines to prevent outbreaks in a population, a certain threshold of vaccinated individuals must be reached (95% for measles). This shouldn’t be taken to mean that only 95% of vaccine-eligible individuals need to get vaccinated, however. The goal should be for 100% of eligible individuals to be vaccinated so that the remaining 5% can be those who are unable to receive vaccinations: infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. Ensuring high vaccination rates in those who are able to receive vaccinations allows a population to reach herd immunity.

NY-12 incumbent Carolyn Maloney has repeatedly taken the side of anti-vaxxers — protesting with them (Green Our Vaccines rally 2008), calling for unnecessary, unwarranted, and wasteful studies (Comprehensive Comparative Study of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Populations Act of 2007, Vaccine Safety Study Act of 2013 and 2015), and attempting to pass legislation that would make it more difficult and costly to produce and distribute vaccines (Vaccine Safety and Public Confidence Assurance Act of 2009, Mercury-Free Vaccines Act of 2009).

The state of New York allows religious and medical exemptions for vaccines, but does not offer a personal belief exemption. Between 2009 and 2012, legislation was introduced (but not passed) in New York that would have made it easier for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children, something that should not be up for debate. New York City has an overall vaccination rate of 97%, and one of the highest rates in the nation for kindergarteners receiving vaccinations. However, and due in part to a trending and false pop cultural narrative around vaccines, there are a number of private schools in the city who do not reach the recommended threshold for herd immunity.

Between the 2015 and 2016 school years, we saw a slight increase (0.2%) in the number of unvaccinated school children. Low immunization rates in schools led to a whooping cough outbreak in Brooklyn in 2015, as well as mumps and whooping cough outbreaks Upstate in 2017. To combat high opt-out rates in schools, some states have suggested publicizing the immunization rates at schools and child care centers.

I will elevate this conversation here in New York so that the statistics and severity of this issue are as widely known as the damaging hearsay that has been circulated by our current elected officials.

4. K-12 curriculum needs an update to meet the demands of our changing economy.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education prepares students for an increasingly technology-driven world. The U.S. struggles to compete against other nations in STEM education, coming in 29th in math, and 22nd in science among industrialized nations in standardized testing.

STEM education teaches students to think critically, innovate, and problem solve, rather than simply do well on exams. However, the push for STEM in schools has resulted in more of the same science and math classes, rather than teaching all subjects through the lens of STEM. And we’re still overlooking the importance of technology and engineering in K-12 education.

Thousands of available jobs are awaiting individuals with the proper qualifications, and U.S.-based occupations in the STEM fields are growing at 17% while other fields average 9.8%. There is still a large gender gap in STEM education: women have held only 25% of STEM jobs over the last decade. The number of STEM-related bachelor’s degrees earned by women decreased between 2004–2014, with the biggest drop in computer science (from 24% to 18%). Although the total number of science and engineering degrees continues to grow, the gender distribution remains unchanged.

In an increasingly computerized job landscape, uniquely human skills like creative and social skills will continue to grow in value, which is why I advocate for visual and liberal arts in the push for STEM education (to become STEAM). Turning STEM into STEAM encourages those who might otherwise shy away from STEM careers to bring indispensable creativity, empathy, and expression to these fields.

STEAM education must begin with supporting teachers. Teachers bear the burden of planning lessons and motivating students, and need access to better resources. Organizations like the National Math and Science Initiative deserve our support in scaling their efforts. The NMSI’s College Readiness Program incentivizes and enables teachers to raise student’s AP exam scores, resulting in higher college acceptance and retention rates as well as higher earnings after college, especially for minorities.

I’m strongly in favor STEAM programs that teach students through practical real-world applications for their success and future employment.

Skepticism is always healthy for debate, but blatant disrespect for science and disregard for facts puts our future in jeopardy. Until we change our representation in Congress, it’s unlikely that evidence-based policies will get the attention or support they so critically need.

Suraj Patel

Written by

Lawyer, Activist, Business Ethics Professor @ NYU Stern. Running for Congress in New York’s 12th District.

Suraj Patel

Written by

Lawyer, Activist, Business Ethics Professor @ NYU Stern. Running for Congress in New York’s 12th District.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store