how scientists can help us avoid the next flint

In a story full of neglect and willful ignorance, there are a few heroes. One is Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician and Michigan State professor who raised the alarm with data on kids’ blood-lead levels from the local hospital. Another is Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineer who took on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality after a Flint resident sent him a lead-rich water sample for testing.

Hanna-Attisha and Edwards provide shining examples of how academics can use science to hold the powers-that-be accountable and make meaningful change.

Taking on the status quo is hard. But as Edwards discusses in the Chronicle, it’s becoming ever-harder to do that from within universities:

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….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?…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….Everyone’s invested in just cranking out more crap papers.

When faculty defend academic freedom, tenure is often the focus. And certainly tenure provides one kind of protection for scientists like Hanna-Attisha (though she doesn’t yet have it) or Edwards who want to piss off the powerful.

But as this interview — and you should really read the whole thing — makes clear, tenure isn’t the only element of the academic ecosystem that allows people to speak out. Scientists can’t do their work without research funding, or access to data. When funders have interests — whether directly economic, as when oil and gas companies fund research on the environmental impacts of fracking, or more organizational, as when environmental agencies just don’t want to rock the boat — that affects what scientists can do.

So in addition to tenure, a funding ecosystem that includes multiple potential sources and that excludes the most egregiously self-interested will encourage independent science.

But beyond that, we need to defend strong professional cultures. Hanna-Attisha emphasizes how the values of medicine both motivated her (“[T]his is what matters. This is what we do … This is why we’re here”) and prompted her boss’s support (“Kids’ health comes first”), despite the “politically messy situation” that might have encouraged the hospital’s silence. Edwards lectures his colleagues about “their obligation as civil engineers to protect the public” and says, “I didn’t get in this field to stand by and let science be used to poison little kids.”

Intense economic pressures, though, make it hard to protect such this kind of idealism. As market and financial logics come to dominate institutions like hospitals and universities, professional values gradually erode. It takes a concerted effort to defend them when everything else encourages you to keep your head down and leave well enough alone.

Promoting academic independence isn’t without its downsides. Scientists can become solipsistic, valuing internal status over real-world impact and complacently expecting government support as their due. The balance between preserving a robust and independent academic sector and ensuring scientists remain accountable to the public is a delicate one.

But if I have to choose between two risks—that science might be a bit insular and too focused on internal incentives, or that the only supporters of science have a one-sided interest in how the results turn out—I’ll take the first one every time.

Written by epopp

February 12, 2016 at 4:54 pm

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