Fact Check

Trump’s Budget Director Pick Asked “Do We Really Need Government-Funded Research at All?”

Though it has since been deleted, Mick Mulvaney did pose this question in a Facebook post in response to a scientific study casting doubts on the role of the Zika virus in causing infant microcephaly.

Published Dec 20, 2016

 (Gage Skidmore / FLICKR)
Image Via Gage Skidmore / FLICKR
Representative Mick Mulvaney, who was recently selected as the Trump administration's nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget, one posed the question “Do we really need government-funded research at all?” on Facebook.

On 17 December 2016, President-elect Donald Trump nominated South Carolina representative Mick Mulvaney to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

From the transition team statement:

“We are going to do great things for the American people with Mick Mulvaney leading the Office of Management and Budget,” said President-elect Trump. “Right now we are nearly $20 trillion in debt, but Mick is a very high-energy leader with deep convictions for how to responsibly manage our nation’s finances and save our country from drowning in red ink. With Mick at the head of OMB, my administration is going to make smart choices about America’s budget, bring new accountability to our federal government, and renew the American taxpayer’s trust in how their money is spent.”

He has been characterized by many as a “deficit hawk” and is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line fiscal conservatives. As director of the OMB, he would run an organization that, in its words:

Assists the President in overseeing the preparation of the Federal budget and in supervising its administration in Federal agencies [and] also oversees and coordinates the Administration's procurement, financial management, information, and regulatory policies.

On 19 December 2016, Mother Jones’ Pema Levy reported on one of Mulvaney's since-deleted Facebook posts, unearthed by a Democratic opposition research group named American Bridge. This post from 9 September 2016 came at a time that Congress was debating funding research into efforts to fight the spread of the Zika virus. In it, Mulvaney suggested the federal government (whose budget office he is now nominated to lead) might not be well served by funding science research at all:

It has been a busy week, and with everything else going on I haven't had a chance to post on Zika, which I know has been in the news a bit. I have received all sorts of emails and FB comments this week on Zika. Some people want me to pass a "clean" bill (which I suppose means not paying for it with spending reductions elsewhere). Other folks want us to fund more research if we can find a way to pay for it. No one has written me yet, though, to ask what might be the best question: do we really need government-funded research at all.

The post, though deleted, can still be viewed on a cached version of Mulvaney’s Facebook page. His argument against science funding (and science in general) seems to follow arguments made by other prominent Trump transition team figures: because science is sometimes wrong, or not clear cut, it shouldn’t be trusted.

In defense of his opposition to funding Zika research, the remainder of this 9 September 2016 post cited a recent study that cast doubt on the viruses connection to infant microcephaly:

And 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 other 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? Perhaps there is another reason for the epidemic in Brazil. According to a new report by 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. That isn't from some politicians website or some right-wing advocacy group.

The information to which Mulvaney is referring comes from a press release provided by the New England Complex Systems Institute, and posted on the science news aggregator ScienceDaily.com on 24 June 2016. The findings that Mulvaney cites to are summarized in that release:

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?

In the final portion of Mulvaney’s post, he incorrectly asserts that this scientific information came from the New England Journal of Medicine because the press release cited a study from that journal. The NEJM study cited in the release — a review of data from Brazil’s Zika epidemic — concluded the exact opposite:

On the basis of this review, we conclude that a causal relationship exists between prenatal Zika virus infection and microcephaly and other serious brain anomalies.

And, as it turns out, so did the New England Complex Systems Institute. A closer look at the actual reports reveals that the NECSI had been releasing semi-monthly reports on Zika in Colombia since May 2016. Early on, they found no evidence to support a connection between the virus and microcephaly. Later data, however, revealed that more time was needed to see the effects of the virus in children born to Zika infected mothers. In their August report (the final one in this series), they stated:

The epidemic of Zika in Colombia was expected to result in many cases of microcephaly. However, until epidemiological week 23 (June 11) there were only 6 reported cases. The number of cases increased to 21 in weeks 24-27, which appears to confirm expectations about Zika as a cause of microcephaly [...]

Mulvaney has not commented on his reason for deleting the post.


The Trump-Pence Transition Team.   "President-Elect Donald J. Trump Nominates U.S. Congressman Mick Mulvaney Director of the Office of Management and Budget."     17 December 2016.

Phillip, Abby.   "Trump Names Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Fiscal Hawk, to Head Budget Office."     Washington Post.   17 December 2016.

Desilver, Drew.   "What Is the House Freedom Caucus, and Who’s in It?"     Pew Research Center, Fact Tank.   20 October 2015.

Levy, Pama.   “Trump's Pick for Budget Director Isn't Sure the Government Should Fund Scientific Research."     Mother Jones.   19 December 2016.

New England Complex Systems Institute.   "New Doubts on Zika as Cause of Microcephaly."     24 June 2016.

Rasmussen, Sonja A., et al.   “Zika Virus and Birth Defects — Reviewing the Evidence for Causality."     New England Journal of Medicine.   19 May 2016.

Bar-Yam, Yaneer, et al.   “Determining the Rate and Week of Infection of Zika Caused Microcephaly from Colombian and Brazilian Data; Status Report August 1."     New England Complex Systems Institute.   1 August 2016.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.