A letter to the CDC’s CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD regarding banned words, censorship and scientific integrity

The Post is reporting on a list of seven “banned” words at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including: “vulnerable” “entitlement” “diversity” “transgender” “fetus” “evidence-based” “science-based”
Really.
The CDC has one of the stronger scientific integrity policies among federal agencies, so I wrote the following letter to CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD, the acting director for science at the agency. His office can be reached at (404) 639-7570 or OADS@cdc.gov.
ATTN: Acting Associate Director for Science
CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD
From: Aaron Huertas, founder and principal, Science Communication Media
Re: scientific integrity violation at CDC
Captain Mac Kenzie:
Thank you for your service to the public. The CDC is a life-saving science agency and its scientists and employees embody the public service mission of federal science. As you know, performing that mission requires communicating clearly and freely with the public and policymakers, whether in the midst of an outbreak or when describing the need for scientific research into deadly diseases.
I’ve been working in science, policy and politics for more than 10 years, with a focus on helping researchers grapple with politicized scrutiny of their work. As you might imagine, I was distributed to read in the Washington Post today the following:

The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
It’s not clear to me if this list is an attempt by political appointees to censor career staff or if it represents a form of self-censorship designed to avoid political scrutiny. In either case, it is wrong. And I think this ban on phrases constitutes a violation of the CDC’s own scientific integrity policy, which I understand your office implements.
Several relevant bullet points from that policy stand out, including the following:
  • CDC embraces intellectual honesty and transparency in its release of information to fully empower public decision making.
  • CDC considers diverse cultural and societal values and beliefs when developing messages.
  • CDC does not use trickery or deceptive communication techniques to advance public health recommendations or its reputation.
  • CDC’s good reputation is not sacrificed for the sake of any past, current, or future employee or partner.
  • CDC embraces the idea that plain language works best to eliminate ambiguity in its research results and health recommendations for the public.
  • CDC does not withhold information only to avoid embarrassment.
It’s clear to me that scientific censorship is not only wrong because it hides the truth from the public, but it’s wrong because it perpetuates injustice.
If public employees are banned from using the very words “science-based,” “diversity” or “transgender” how can people trust science agencies to tell them the truth about science or about about public health outcomes for groups of people who are marginalized in society? Further how can scientists who work at the agency or members of the public take the agency’s commitment to diversity at face value if agency employees are banned from using the very word “diversity”?
I strongly urge you and your colleagues to address this issue head on, publicly, and to use the banned phrases today and every day, as loudly as fulfilling your mission requires doing so. The CDC has always been one of our most independent and trusted science agencies. Please do not let the Trump administration or a Republican Congress or fears about budget cuts perpetuate censorship and injustice. Please know that the scientific community and the public will support scientists who speak out. Now’s the time to stand up for truth and stand up for science justice.
Sincerely,
Aaron Huertas
Washington, DC

About the Author Aaron Huertas

Aaron Huertas is a science communicator and public relations professional who lives in Washington, DC.

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