When it comes to science policy, we should take President Trump at his word.
On Friday, the Trump administration prohibited officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words and phrases within 2018 budget documents: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based”.
Public outrage flared up against the Orwellian-style censorship, but the depressing reality is that this is the logical next step in the president’s anti-science policy agenda. Trump wields the bully pulpit by way of provocations that serve as dog whistles to his anti-science base, while suggesting to the rest of us “this is just Twitter, not legislation.” The rhetorical tactic works. It’s strangely calming to write off Trump’s words as just midnight musing. The alternative—that he means everything he says and only a lack of political mandate has kept sweeping policy from enactment—is harder to swallow.
But words matter, especially when they telegraph policy changes. This isn’t even the first time Trump has banned language as a precursor to policy action: just three months prior to leaving the Paris Agreement, the Energy Department’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy forbid the phrase “climate change.”
The CDC was formed in 1946 to address the malaria epidemic in the southern region of the United States. Today, it is the U.S. federal agency tasked with protecting public health through control and prevention of disease. The president’s interference is not only a clear-and-present danger to freedom of the scientific community to do their jobs, but also another signal of Trump’s interest in dismantling the nation’s scientific infrastructure.
Even with its limited ability to enact legislation, this administration has already proven to be the most anti-science executive branch in modern history. At almost every turn, Trump has chosen to sideline scientists, leave vacant scientific appointments, reduce or eliminate federal independent scientific boards, and appoint anti-science individuals to powerful positions. For example, the president has taken longer to appoint a science adviser than any other modern president. Every president since Eisenhower has appointed the power position to “offer scientific and technical advice on areas of national concern.” While the position is vacant, Trump’s EPA Administrator is an open climate denier.
It’s chilling to have a president that would ban the phrases “science-based” and “evidence-based”. But the implications for an administration that has yet to find its legislative stride is terrifying. If the president was able to push through his 2018 budget proposal, for example, it would have reduced federal funding for research and development by a mind-boggling $43 billion—one-third of the total the country invests each year. Such a move would reduce the nation’s investment, as a share of GDP, to roughly that of Egypt and Malaysia.
Trump’s inability thus far to enact his anti-science priorities has translated into haphazard executive actions that invoke temporary outrage. But if the scientific community, and its advocates, wait until the president has the political clout to actually pass legislation or meaningfully influence the federal budget, it will be too late.
For those that think evidence is the only basis for decision-making and science ought to be the final arbiter for agencies like the CDC, Trump’s silencing of these phrases speak volumes to his ultimate agenda, and should not be ignored.