Read What the Professor Who Helped Expose the Flint Water Scandal Said About Science and Academia in 2016

Read What the Professor Who Helped Expose the Flint Water Scandal Said About Science and Academia in 2016

Michael Krieger | Posted Tuesday Feb 2, 2016 at 4:33 pm

It was the injustice of it all and that the very agencies that are paid to protect these residents from lead in water, knew or should’ve known after June at the very very latest of this year, that federal law was not being followed in Flint, and that these children and residents were not being protected, and the extent to which they went to cover this up exposes a new level of arrogance and uncaring that I have never encountered.

– Virginia Tech Professor, Marc Edwards

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several weeks, you’ll be aware of the extremely sad and infuriating water scandal that has been exposed in Flint, Michigan. Marc Edwards, a courageous and ethical professor of civil-engineering at Virginia Tech University, played a major role in exposing this public health danger as well as the inexcusable efforts of scientists and public officials to cover it up.

Mr. Edwards sat down for an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education and offered some very blunt words regarding the deplorable state of modern academia. Here are a few excerpts:

When Marc Edwards opens his mouth, dangerous things come out.

In 2003 the Virginia Tech civil-engineering professor said that there was lead in the Washington, D.C., water supply, and that the city had been poisoning its residents. He was right.

Last fall he said there was lead in the water in Flint, Mich., despite the reassurances of state and local authorities that the water was safe. He was right about that, too.

Working with residents of Flint, Mr. Edwards led a study that revealed that the elevated lead levels in people’s homes were not isolated incidents but a result of a systemic problem that had been ignored by state scientists.

The infrastructural problems go beyond the public utilities of certain American cities, he says. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Edwards said that the systems built to support scientists do not reward moral courage and that the university pipeline contains toxins of its own — which, if ignored, will corrode public faith in science.

Now here are a few snippets from the interview.

Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?

A. I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.

This is already happening.

Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?

A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?

I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.

If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.

Q. Now, of course, when you walk around Flint and ask people about the reassurances they’re hearing now, they don’t believe anybody. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be “all of the time.”

I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way. The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.

Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.

Q. I talked to this woman yesterday at the university pavilion. She’s a senior, a nursing student. We looked at the stickers the university had put on its water fountain, saying that this has a filter, that this is safe. And she said: “No. I don’t drink the water here. I don’t care what they say. I don’t care if it’s from the university.” At that level of mistrust, the system doesn’t work. What do you think people would have to see in order to start trusting what scientists tell them?

A. It’s going to take time for the people in Flint. They have been so betrayed, and the callous way that our most vulnerable were treated in Flint by the very agencies paid to protect them is so profoundly disturbing. That’s why this is striking such a chord.

Q. You teach a course on ethics and heroism at Virginia Tech. How exactly does one teach heroism to college students?

A. We teach aspirational ethics. What I teach my students is, You’re born heroic. I go into these animal studies, and heroism is actually in our nature. What you have to do is make sure that the system doesn’t change you, that our educational system doesn’t teach you to be willfully blind and to forget your aspirations, because that’s the default position.

We talk about the realities of heroism too. It’s not fun. These are gut-wrenching things. But the main thing is, Do not let our educational institutions make you into something that you will be ashamed of.

Just in case you’re still confused as to why faith in institutions continues to plunge amongst the American public. Many of these institutions are rotten to the core, filled with opportunists who are far more concerned about their own individual interests than the public’s.

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger

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