Why Academic Freedom Matters: Flint Edition


imagesIf you want evidence about why academic freedom matters, then read this piece from the Washington Post about Virginia Tech Professor of Civil Engineering Marc Edwards, “The Heroic Professor Who Helped Uncover the Flint Lead Water Crisis​.”  Last week, bowing to intense pressure from the beleaguered people of Flint, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder named Edwards to the newly created “Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee,” tasked with finding a long-term strategy to address the water crisis. Here’s some of what the Post reports:

Edwards is the environmental engineering professor from Virginia Tech who once led, almost entirely on his own, a crusade against the federal government’s failure to protect residents of Washington from lead in the city’s water. And he won.

It was Edwards, 51, who more than a decade earlier proved, along with an investigation by The Washington Post, that corrosion in the nation’s capital’s pipes had caused lead to seep into the water supply and pass through kitchen faucets and shower heads. After helping to expose that water crisis in 2004, he spent six years challenging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to admit they weren’t being honest about the extent of the damage the lead had on children.

He burned through thousands of dollars of his own money, as well as $500,000 from a MacArthur Foundation genius grant he won in 2008, to take on the federal government. He was harassed, lampooned, and threatened. He lost friends.

Then, in 2010, he was vindicated when it was proven that the CDC had lied to the public in a misleading report, which falsely claimed lead levels in the water had not posed a health risk to D.C. residents. . . .

In April, a Flint mother contacted Edwards, who gave her instructions on how to sample her tap water.  She sent the samples to Edwards to test.  “It was the worst lead levels he had ever seen.”

He shared his findings with the Environmental Protection Agency. He hoped the system would work this time. But in July, a high level EPA official ignored it and told the mayor of Flint everything was fine. The mayor famously went on television and drank a glass of the city’s water to prove that all was well.

Edwards was furious. It felt like history repeating itself. So he formed a team of researchers at Virginia Tech, to, as he puts it, “go all in for Flint.”

He collected hundreds more water samples, providing his expertise and funding. He set up a website to update the public on his findings and hold the government accountable. As he did in D.C., he became investigative reporter, activist and scientist.

He filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents and emails of state and city officials to find out how much they knew and what they could be covering up. Turns out they knew a lot and did nothing.

Since Edwards and his team intervened, the world has taken notice. They published all the documents from the FOIA requests, which showed just how badly the government had betrayed the people of Flint.

It’s caused “a crisis in confidence in government,” he said.

Edwards “teaches a course on ethics and heroism at Virginia Tech. He tells his students that everyone has it in them to be heroic.”

His colleagues in the field describe his passion and commitment. David Dzombak, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, met Edwards when he was a graduate student in 1988. He recalled Edwards speaking at a conference in 2002 warning other scientists to take seriously the threat of decaying water infrastructure. Even if it wasn’t the hottest research topic of the moment, he told them it was their obligation as civil engineers to protect the public. . . .

The work is far from over. Edwards sees his role as continuing to hold the government accountable to the residents of Flint. He’ll share his scientific knowledge and continue to advocate for better civil servants.

“I didn’t get in this field to stand by and let science be used to poison little kids,” Edwards said. “I can’t live in a world where that happens. I won’t live in that world.”

The next time someone tells you that academic freedom is a dated concept, that the protections of tenure don’t matter, or that faculty members are merely self-justifying elitists who get to define their own truths and hide behind some phony “freedom to research,” tell them about Marc Edwards.  And ask them what kind of society we’d have if passionate and dedicated professors like Edwards could be silenced, disciplined, or dismissed when they offend powerful interests, state or private?  Ask them who will help the children of Flint — or of the next town where cynical privatizing politicians put their short-term “bottom line” ahead of the common good — if scientists like Edwards don’t have the protections of academic freedom?


This morning (Feb. 2), the Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Prof. Edwards, well worth reading.  Here’s one important excerpt:

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.


3 thoughts on “Why Academic Freedom Matters: Flint Edition

  1. The biggest threat to Prof. Edwards’ academic freedom is personal bankruptcy from having to pay for all of this expensive research himself.

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