Academic Freedom in the Flint Lead Water Crisis

The incident that Charles Murray, one of the co-authors of The Bell Curve, is going to visit Virginia Tech (VT) and give a talk invokes a large discussion among the university about academic freedom and racism problem. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Protecting academic freedom is its core mission.

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure)

This reminds me of the famous Flint lead water crisis going on recently. Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor from VT, a winner once in his crusade battle against the federal government to protect residents of Washington from lead water, received a phone call in April 2015 from a woman in Flint, claiming that something was seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap and her family’s health was in danger. Dr. Edwards tested her water and found out that “it was the worst lead levels he had ever seen”. He was so furious that he formed a research team in VT to investigate the incident and “go all in for Flint”. They even have an official “Flint Water Study Updates” website to cover the progress, spread related knowledge and information, and raise funding.

This event has attracted much attention and Dr. Edwards’ research surely pushed the investigation progress a lot. In March 23, 2016, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force published the final report on the website. If there is no academic freedom, it could be much harder for Dr. Edwards to stand out and confront the government.

Another related small story: last week, I had an interview with a technical leader from a coastal consulting company. He was very polite and appraised my advisor’s study for being useful and constructive to the engineering field. Therefore, I believe that academic freedom is not only about the right to research freely, but also about the responsibility to protect and advance the common good,  just like what Dr. Edwards and my advisor has been trying to do, and also what we all shall strive to do.

One thought on “Academic Freedom in the Flint Lead Water Crisis”

  1. I took Dr. Edwards’ Ethics in Science and Engineering course last fall and I highly recommend the course if you have time to take it! It was especially interesting to be enrolled in the course as the Flint Water Crisis was unfolding. I was continually amazed with Dr. Edwards’ dedication to the Flint project and I’m so glad to see this situation finally getting the attention it deserves. I do think that his department recognizes the value of all of the work he does for other communities, but not all faculty members are so lucky to work in departments that would feel the same way. It was fascinating to learn about Dr. Edwards’ experience with the DC water crisis as well and to discuss how we as scientists and engineers would handle such situations in our future careers. He continually emphasized that we have to decide where we stand on ethical issues before we’re confronted with these types of situations.

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