Political leadership in the time of crises: Primum non nocere

Frederick M. Burkle, Dan Hanfling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Long before the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the United States was already experiencing a failure of confidence between politicians and scientists, primarily focused on differences of opinion on climate extremes. This ongoing clash has culminated in an environment where politicians most often no longer listen to scientists. Importation of Ebola virus to the United States prompted an immediate political fervor over travel bans, sealing off borders and disputes over the reliability of both quarantine and treatment protocol. This demonstrated that evidenced- based scientific discourse risks taking a back seat to political hyperbole and fear. The role of public health and medical expertise should be to ensure that cogent response strategies, based upon good science and accumulated knowledge and experience, are put in place to help inform the development of sound public policy. But in times of crisis, such reasoned expertise and experience are too often overlooked in favor of the partisan press “sound bite”, where fear and insecurity have proved to be severely counterproductive. While scientists recognize that science cannot be entirely apolitical, the lessons from the impact of Ebola on political discourse shows that there is need for stronger engagement of the scientific community in crafting messages required for response to such events. This includes the creation of moral and ethical standards for the press, politicians and scientists, a partnership of confidence between the three that does not now exist and an “elected officials” toolbox that helps to translate scientific evidence and experience into readily acceptable policy and public communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPLoS Currents
Issue numberDISASTERS
StatePublished - May 29 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Ebola
  • Epidemics
  • Global health
  • Science and politics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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