The scientific community’s response to the reported Trump administration “word ban” has been swift and fierce.
In a call on Tuesday, representatives from LGBTQ as well as women’s and family health organizations strongly condemned the reported ban of seven words including “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” imposed by the Trump administration on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s budget. The CDC is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“Having political decisions being layered onto our public health system, which is supposed to be a science-based health system, is just absolutely outrageous and dangerous,” said Mara Keisling, the executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality.
The Trump administration is prohibiting CDC officials from using these words or phrases in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget:
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) December 16, 2017
In addition to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the organizations present on the call to condemn the restrictions, which reportedly concern budget documents, were the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Partnership for Women & Families, The Leadership conference, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. At various times, representatives described the restrictions as “shameful,” “petulant,” “ridiculous,” “life threatening,” and an “attack” on democracy.
“This isn’t just about a change in vocabulary,” Erica Sackin, Political Communications Director for Planned Parenthood, said.
“You cannot erase the health inequities faced by people of color in this country simply by forbidding the use of the word ‘vulnerable’ or ‘diversity,” Sackin added.
Also on Tuesday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), along with 40 other scientific, engineering, and academic organizations, submitted a letter to director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney, asking him to demonstrate fidelity to scientific and evidence-informed decision-making in government in response to the CDC allegations.
The letter stated:
Scientific and technological knowledge is the foundation for future research, experimentation, debate, consensus-building and understanding. Scientifically accurate information builds the foundation for public policies that promote the well-being of people and communities. The selection, removal or replacement of scientific information for ideological or political reasons compromises the integrity of the process of receiving scientific advice.
Reports of a ban on the seven words at the CDC broke in the Washington Post on Friday. A senior analyst told the Post that in a budget meeting, a senior leader in the agency’s office of financial resources passed down the ban as a directive from the White House.
CDC director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald issued a response, saying that “there are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC—period” and that the discussion came from a meeting that does not reflect agency policy.
“I understand that confusion arose from a staff-level discussion at a routine meeting about how to present CDC’s budget. It was never intended as overall guidance for how we describe and conduct CDC’s work,” Fitzgerald said.
In the New York Times’ investigation into the ban, they found that it may have represented more of an issue of budgetary framing than organizational policy: “a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.”
You may be understandably concerned about recent media reports alleging that CDC is banned from using certain words in budget documents. I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution.
— Dr Brenda Fitzgerald (@CDCDirector) December 17, 2017
The concerns of advocacy and scientific organizations have not been assuaged by the interpretation that this may have been limited to a discussion of the budget — and they are loudly sounding the alarm of the threat they say it poses to science and public health.
In the AAAS letter, the organizations asked, despite the CDC director’s “clarifying statements,” that Mulvaney publicly “encourage the heads of all federal agencies to support the use of science in decision making and to support the scientists who produce the knowledge upon which the nation’s economy relies.”
The represented organizations on Wednesday’s call said that any ban whatsoever prompts a chilling effect on science.
“Regardless of where this came from, it sends a signal to employees about what kind of work they will do, what kind of research questions scientists will ask, and what kind of policy that agencies will ultimately make, and that’s going to have impacts on people across the country,” said Gretchen Goldman, who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.
The CDC, as the nation’s front-line agency in the event of a public health emergency, occupies a unique role in the federal government that makes any erosion of public trust in its leaders potentially deadly.
The CDC was instrumental in managing the response to the Zika and Ebola crises, and it was their credibility that enabled them to effectively communicate with the public about the diseases, and prevent widespread panic. But if the CDC is seen as a political arm of the federal government, or as an untrustworthy source of information, then disease control could be compromised.
“There will come a time when all Americans will need to listen to the CDC,” Keisling said. “And they now have reason to doubt that they will be told the truth. That is a public health catastrophe. That is death waiting to happen.”
“Their decisions have to be science-based. And they have to be evidence-based,” Goldman said. “All of our lives are at stake.”