6: Academic Funding trumps Ethics – Criticism on Dr. Edwards’ involvement in Flint

It was late July of 2015. At a lunch meeting, Dr. Marc Edwards asked for volunteers to help citizens of Flint, who were reporting discolored water and health problems and wanted to investigate issues with their water. Dr. Edwards got a unanimous affirmative from the group and we went all-in for Flint. By this point, a mom in Flint – Ms. LeeAnne Walters – was rallying support after her son had been lead poisoned and our group found twice hazardous waste levels of lead in her water. A heroic EPA employee – Mr. Miguel Del Toral – was shut down and sent to ethics training for trying to do his job and exposing scientific misconduct by MDEQ and warning EPA of what is now known as one of the greatest public health tragedies in US history.

From the time we got involved, it took 6 weeks before the State of Michigan threw in the towel and accepted that Flint was a public health disaster and coughed up millions of dollars to switch the city back to Detroit Water. By January of 2016, a federal public health emergency had been declared in Flint and FEMA walked through the streets of Flint handing out bottled water and filters. The work of everyone involved has been written about extensively in the media and the major players – Ms. Walters, Mr. Del Toral, Dr. Edwards and Dr. Hanna-Attisha have been bestowed with many awards and have deservedly been called the heroes of Flint for standing up and being a non-conformist when children were being harmed by acts of scientific misconduct.

Everything our research group did in Flint was guided by the First Canon of Engineering (which should also be the first canon of Humanity) – which asks to “hold paramount the health and safety of the public”. I repeat, public health and safety are to be held PARAMOUNT! This was the reason why Dr. Edwards spent his own money to fund our efforts and we donated more than 5 person-years of effort voluntarily, while the EPA was debating on whether Flint is a community “we want to go out on a limb for.”

While there has been a great deal of praise for our work, there has also been criticism from the academic community because Dr. Edwards is championing a cause that is blurring the lines between an academic and an activist. A recent criticism from a previous collaborator of Dr. Edwards was that we should have let the citizens of Flint take charge and act as external experts and not get into activism. A major issue with that approach was that the citizens had been fighting for the cause since April 2014 and it was going nowhere. Our work provided scientific validity to the citizen’s concerns. The analogy that was presented in the critique was that: if you are a fireman, instead of attending to calls and putting out a fire in someone’s home, you go to their home and while it is on fire, teach them how to put it out so that you are not the hero. The way the events in Flint played out, the timing was of utmost importance. It gives us great satisfaction in the fact that the intervention from everyone involved came at a time when lead levels were starting to skyrocket and by switching the water source a majority of the potential damage was mitigated. This is akin to putting out a fire after it burned down a house and before it burns down the whole city.

And then we have the recent editorial in ES&T which calls out Dr. Edwards among others for championing a cause and becoming an activist.

If we move from being educators and researchers to allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.

So, essentially the editor-in-chief of one of the most respected journals in environmental engineering is telling us that preventing the lead poisoning of thousands of kids in Flint does not qualify as paramount as per the ethical standards and that we should not jeopardize the all-important academic funding by stepping in and doing what is right. I also disagree with him naming Dr. Edwards and Dr. Carder of WVU who exposed Volksvagens’s wrongdoing in emissions tests in the same sentence. Cheating in emissions tests was not harming the public in a direct way that lead in water in Flint was. The ideas proposed in the editorial sound great when there is no danger to the public.

Now I quote excerpts from the response to this editorial on flintwaterstudy.org.

The author of the editorial told us it was written because he believes “that this is a conversation that we need to have as a community.” However, following the approach described in the editorial to teach our students that they must honor the First Canon and risk their untenured professional careers and livelihood to “push back when faced with injustice,” while at the same time arguing this obligation does not apply to tenured academics because our funding is “too precious to lose” is the very definition of cowardice.

And finally, the most important take-home message from Flint:

Never wait for, or expect, the approval of your community, especially from conformists who hold positions of greatest academic power. The personal and professional peril is great, the critics are numerous and vocal, but staying silent is to be complicit in perpetrating injustice. And no matter what may come of the rest of our lives or careers, we are certain of one thing: Flint was a community worth going out on a limb for, and by upholding a just cause, we enhanced the social contract between academics and the public.