The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fired off a series of tweets Sunday to try to quell fierce backlash from a Friday night report that the Trump administration had banned the agency from using certain terms in budget documents, including “science-based” and “diversity.”
“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC,” Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted at the top of a thread Sunday morning, which is currently pinned.
Instead, several sources have tried to clarify that the language changes were merely suggestions to help make the agency’s budget more palatable to some Republicans and ease its passage.
The Friday report that sparked the firestorm was from TheWashington Post, which said that the Trump administration had outright prohibited the CDC from using the seven following terms in its budget documents for next year: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” In some cases, CDC policy analysts were given alternative phrases and ways of, essentially, writing around the terms but conveying the same meaning. For instance, instead of “science-based,” the agency could write: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
The CDC, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was not the only agency to get such a list, according to a second report by the Post on Saturday. Another HHS agency was banned from using “entitlement,” “diversity,” and “vulnerable” and was told to use “Obamacare” instead of “ACA.” Meanwhile State Department documents now refer to sex education as “sexual risk avoidance,” the Post added.
The Post’s reports were largely based on an anonymous policy analyst, who took part in a 90-minute policy briefing with senior CDC officials, and an anonymous HHS official. Other outlets, including The New York Times and STAT, have since confirmed with other sources parts of the Post’s reports, notably that such lists and term swaps exist. But, the HHS and other sources say the Post’s reports misrepresented the language changes, which were not bans.
Strategy or self defeat?
In a media statement, the HHS said: "The assertion that HHS has 'banned words' is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process. HHS will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans."
Unnamed officials told the Times that the language changes were not bans but recommendations to basically “ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.”
One unnamed former federal official laid it out for the Times by saying:
“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. 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.”
An unnamed HHS official echoed that explanation to STAT, saying: “There are different ways to say things without necessarily compromising or changing the true essence of what’s being said.”
Meanwhile, the Post’s reports sparked a firestorm online and among health and science advocates. Many were quick to denounce what they viewed as muzzling the HHS, self-censorship, and interference with the agency’s mission.
Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), immediately released a statement to the media Friday night, saying:
"Among the words forbidden to be used in CDC budget documents are 'evidence-based' and 'science-based.' I suppose one must not think those things either. Here's a word that's still allowed: ridiculous."
Others worried that even sliding language in a budget document could push the activities of the HHS overall. Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told STAT:
“So of course the administration and its defenders are going to argue that this is only about what goes into the budget. But we know that the signal to the agency is much stronger than that. And it’s going to change behavior of people who work there. And that’s much more damaging than any direct censorship.”
As Ars has reported before, the CDC has a history of changing its activities ostensibly in accordance with politics, including abruptly canceling a scientific conference on climate change and health shortly after Donald Trump’s election.
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