The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known commonly as the CDC, is America’s leading public health institution. It focuses national attention on developing and applying disease control and prevention, specifically on infectious disease, food-borne pathogens, environmental health, occupational health and injury prevention; it also researches and provides information on non-infectious diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
It employs scientists, in other words, bright people trained to study health issues using the scientific method. It investigates phenomena, collects data and uses evidence and science to report on matters affecting the American public.
We were disturbed in recent days to find out that the CDC is encouraging — if not indirectly instructing — its scientists to let politics into their scientific studies.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been barred from using seven words or phrases in agency budget documents: “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender” and “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity” and “evidence-based.”
“The assertion that HHS has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process,” a federal Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Matt Lloyd, told the New York Times, which also reported on the story, in an email. (The CDC is a part of the HHS; its secretary is a member of the presidential Cabinet). “HHS will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. HHS also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.”
So where was this list of banned words coming from, if not from President Donald Trump’s administration?
The Post article said that CDC policy analysts were told of the forbidden words and phrases at a Dec. 14 meeting with senior officials who oversee the agency’s budget.
The New York Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although 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.
A former federal official, who asked not to be named, called the move unprecedented.
“It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian, but they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the CDC does,” the former official said. “They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what CDC can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.”
A former CDC official, who asked not to be identified, said that some staff members were upset because the purported ban suggested that their work was being politicized. Others told the Times that some effort to tone down language might make sense when appealing for funding from Republican conservatives in Congress.
Whether you are conservative, liberal or anyplace else on the political spectrum, evidence is evidence. We might disagree on how to go about fighting a disease, but if the CDC were to report that a disease has infected 3 percent of the U.S. population, that’s a fact, not an opinion.
Scientists aren’t afraid of words or phrases. They investigate and go where the data and evidence take them. We should all want them to continue to do that without their bosses either censoring them or encouraging self-censorship. No government official should be discouraging scientists from investigating topics that might be politically charged. Science is neither Democrat nor Republican.
Let the CDC’s scientists be scientists.