The lead in Flint’s water and the corruption of science

In the story about the high levels of lead in the Flint, MI water supply, the scientists who first produced the measurements that indicated that there was a serious problem were from Virginia Tech University. I was intrigued by the fact that people so far away had to be called in to reveal this problem but did not follow up on why this was so.

But an interview with the lead scientist Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, explains what happened. Back in 2003, Edwards had first sounded the alarm about high levels in lead in the water supply in Washington DC and he was proved to be right. When the people of Flint suspected that their water was similarly contaminated, they first approached local and state officials and scientists to investigate but got nowhere. So they reached out to Edwards and he agreed to look into it.

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. He has since been appointed to a task force to help fix those problems in Flint. In a vote of confidence, residents last month tagged a local landmark with a note to the powers that be: “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!”

But being right in these cases has not made Mr. Edwards happy. Vindicated or not, the professor says his trials over the last decade and a half have cost him friends, professional networks, and thousands of dollars of his own money.

Edwards is angry that the drive for funding has distorted the priorities of science. As he says:

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.

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.

His judgment of the scientific community is scathing.

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. [My emphasis-MS]

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

I too worry about the dangers he highlights. Science depends upon public support. It has to be seen as a public good that serves the public interest or it will be seriously corrupted.


  1. Matt G says

    In the pursuit of increasingly scarce funding, ethical standards drop. And then we have the “scientists” who produce the desired results for this or that company. The trend is deeply disturbing, and I don’t know how we reverse it.

  2. smrnda says

    Another problem with funding is that people in a position to supply funding are rarely benevolent philanthropist types looking to do the most good. They’re hoping to get something out of the funding -- some useful new technology that will, perhaps, be useful to other projects they’ve already funded or will fund in the future. I notice that few research projects which might benefit the department of defense are ever lacking for funding, at least in my experience.

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