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Science Societies Press OMB to Protect the Integrity of Scientific Advice

Rush Holt on CNN
AAAS CEO Rush Holt gives voice to concerns that scientific integrity is at risk in the wake of reports that CDC staff were directed to avoid using seven select words in federal budget documents. | CNN/CNN New Day

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific and engineering societies on Tuesday underscored the implication of reports that staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were directed to avoid using seven words, including “science-based” and “evidence-based,” in federal budget documents.

In a letter to Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, the heads of AAAS, the nation’s leading societies and higher education organizations highlighted the vital role of scientifically accurate information in government documents and communications, saying restrictions on the use of words threatens the integrity of scientific advice.

“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 letter said. “The selection, removal or replacement of scientific information for ideological or political reasons compromises the integrity of the process of receiving scientific advice.”

The news story, first reported by The Washington Post on the evening of Dec. 15, set off a firestorm that the directive, which included barring the use of “fetus,” “transgender,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “vulnerable,” “science-based” and “evidence-based” in budget documents, risks diminishing the value of scientific advice in public policymaking, said the letter. The leaders of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a statement on Monday.

“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,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS, in posts on Twitter and Facebook on Dec. 15. “Here’s a word that’s allowed: ridiculous.”

During a live interview on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday morning, Holt said the words selected for the no-use list suggest ideological intentions. “There’s ideology creeping in here. And ideology is the enemy of evidence-based thinking,” Holt said. “Evidence-based thinking is the antidote for the kind of thinking that is not based on how things actually are.”

The letter acknowledged the Twitter response CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald issued Sunday, assuring the public that CDC has not banned any words and will continue to base its “important public health programs” on scientific facts. Still, the letter said, the scientific community “remains concerned.”

The multi-society letter called on the OMB to work with leaders of government agencies to back the use of the best scientific evidence in their decision-making and to see that federal agencies support scientists doing the work required to “produce the knowledge upon which the nation relies.”

The OMB has an opportunity, the letter said, to work with the heads of government agencies to ensure they are “basing their decisions, communications, policies and regulations on the best scientific evidence. The undersigned would be pleased to work with you in accomplishing this goal.”

[Associated image: James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]