Questions Surround “Paused” NIH Health Communication Research Program

Questions Surround “Paused” NIH Health Communication Research Program

  • August 2, 2023

In a round of interviews before he stepped down as director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in December 2021, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, frequently discussed the problem of misinformation, which, many argue, became more rampant during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks in large part to social media.


Also in March, a group called “Protect the Public’s Trust” sent 3 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the University of Connecticut asking for records of all communication since June 1, 2020, between employees working on a National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded study and several federal agencies, individual current and former federal employees and other individuals, and the social media platforms Twitter and Facebook. Pagoto is one of the study’s 3 principal investigators, all at UConn.


Protect the Public’s Trust has sued at least one institution for taking too long to respond to a FOIA request. Last December, the group filed a complaint in King County Superior Court against the University of Washington for not supplying records of communications between faculty member Kate Starbird, PhD, and employees within a variety of organizations, including the NAACP and the Defending Digital Democracy Project at Harvard. Starbird is an associate professor of human design and engineering at the university and cofounder of its Center for an Informed Public, which has a stated mission “to resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse.”

The FOIA requests to UConn describe Protect the Public’s Trust as “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting ethics in government and restoring the public’s trust in government officials.” The group’s website lists no information about its funders or the names of any staff other than its director, Michael Chamberlain. According to what appeared to be his LinkedIn profile, Chamberlain led Nevada communications for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and worked for the US Department of Education under Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary.

No matter what such groups as Protect the Public’s Trust and the Jordan-chaired subcommittee do with the information they obtain, their numerous FOIA requests seem to be accomplishing one goal: the chilling of discourse around misinformation research.

Read more