Is CDC Banning the Use of Scientific Words? It's Time for CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald to Speak Up

December 16, 2017
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been prohibited from using certain words (including diversity, science-based, and vulnerable) in any documents related to next year’s budget, the Washington Post reported late Friday. New CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald has the opportunity to clarify that no such restrictions exist and that staff are explicitly encouraged to make science the centerpiece of the CDC’s work.

The agency’s scientific integrity policy is unambiguous about this point: As the nation’s public health agency, CDC places primary emphasis on scientific evidence for developing policies, guidelines, and recommendations. But officials suggested in a meeting that instead of putting primary emphasis on science, staff should write that “the CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

It’s quite obvious that good public health policy is not based on wishes.

It is unclear whether the directive came from Trump administration officials or from career staff self-censoring to avoid falling into political traps. Career staff at government agencies often modify language to stop their work from being politicized.

Yet there’s a fine line between necessary self-preservation and needless self-censorship. For example, CDC staff took the unusual and unfortunate step of canceling a conference on climate change and public health even before the inauguration.

I have spoken to dozens of CDC staff and grantees in recent months, and so far, much of their valuable public health research and protection work has continued unabated despite the change in administration. Actions that divert the agency from its grounding in science could compromise the progress they are making in tracking opioid overdoses, reducing teen pregnancy, protecting the elderly from the flu, and slowing HIV transmission among transgender Americans.

At its best, CDC should not be a political agency. Its scientific integrity policy affirms this:

CDC has a responsibility to conduct the best science and is committed to disseminating scientific findings and results without being influenced by policy or political issues. Although CDC may conduct research in areas relevant for making policy decisions, the goal of such research is to provide the best evidence to drive policy in the right direction. CDC is committed to ensuring that all information products authored, published, and released by CDC for public use are of the highest quality and are scientifically sound, technically accurate, and useful to the intended audience.

Yet earlier in the year, Axios reported that the CDC now requires scientists to ask for permission before providing scientific information to reporters and the public. “This correspondence includes everything from formal interview requests to the most basic of data requests,” wrote a CDC official. The constraint on employee communication is another clear violation of the agency scientific integrity policy. It’s also time for the CDC to repudiate this kind of muzzling.

CDC research and initiatives have direct impact on public health and safety for all populations—including and especially those who are most vulnerable to public health threats. Effectively tackling public health challenges means being honest and open about risks and who faces these risks. To prevent the agency from losing its legitimacy, CDC Director Fitzgerald must speak up now to reinforce the centrality of science to the agency’s work.