"Academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust," declared Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis.
In an interview published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Tuesday, Edwards explained how the pressures put on academics to secure funding are forcing scientists to abandon work done in the public interest and that similar financial motives are causing government science agencies to ignore inconvenient truths—like high levels of lead in public drinking water.
He said he's "very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty." Edwards describes the culture as a "hedonistic treadmill," with "extraordinary" pressures to pursue funding, publication, and academic clout. Meanwhile, he said, "the idea of science as a public good is being lost."
Edwards, whose research also uncovered high levels of lead in the Washington, D.C. water supply in 2003, was tapped by Flint residents to help test their water after officials with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) ignored their concerns.
The cases of Flint and Washington, Edwards explained, illustrate how the failure of government scientists to acknowledge a problem, coupled with academia's refusal to question their judgement, can drive serious public health crises.
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?
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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.
Edwards said that practicing "heroism" within the scientific community can be a lonely pursuit and that he has "lost friends" simply by asking questions.
"I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way," he said of the Centers for Disease Control's widespread misreporting of lead levels in Washington D.C.
"When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled," he continued. "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."
Edwards, who testified along with Flint residents before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, was recently appointed to a task force to help address the ongoing crisis.