Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public — but not if it threatens our research funding?

We appreciate the ES&T editorial CROSSING THE IMAGINARY LINE that puts in writing concerns some colleagues have about the actions we took to address an urgent environmental injustice in Flint, MI. Crossing the line from researcher to activist is the oldest academic ethical dilemma in the book, and we agree that it needs to be more openly discussed.

The editorial states that the decision “of speaking out against a corrupt or incompetent system may be the product of a culture where idealism, personal responsibility, and Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities conspire to create a narrative about the noble individual fighting injustice.” It argues that if academics become “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research,” and that because funding is “too precious to lose such action should be avoided because it “exposes the community to potential retaliation” in the form of budget cuts.

The editorial’s proposed solution?

We should “do a better job teaching our students… to push back when faced with injustice” and “protect ourselves and our institutions by seeking out…full-time activists…<rather than>…risking our standing as researchers.

No one understands better than us, the appeal of offloading unpleasant academic ethical obligations to others, but we must not ignore that someone else will pay a price for doing so.

FLINT IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE CRIME SCENE

Before we crossed the line in Flint, every viable alternative to work within the system had been exhausted. Citizens’ concerns had been ignored, an EPA whistleblower had been silenced and discredited, and EPA knew federal corrosion control laws were being broken and did nothing. Michigan employees even told Flint residents that EPA would not be helping them with their problems. One child was already confirmed to have been lead poisoned from elevated lead in the water and there was every reason to believe the entire city was in danger from lead and bacterial risks, like Legionella. Erin Brockovich herself engaged in Flint and “no one listened to her.”

With full knowledge of the above facts, after 4 months of close collaboration with Flint residents, we honored our sacred obligation to the public according to the First Canon of Civil Engineering, which states: 

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Under this canon an engineer is expected not only to protect the public in his or her own work, but also to take action if he or she has knowledge that any other person’s actions may undermine the public welfare.

At no point does the ES&T editorial acknowledge our over-riding ethical obligation as academics and engineering professionals. Rather, it denigrates our act of “speaking out against a corrupt or incompetent system,” as a departure from the true path of the “dispassionate researcher” because of “youthful idealism” or “Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities.” The author of the editorial believes that a “mature idealist” would find other outlets to reduce the likelihood that they “might just step over the imaginary line” to activism.

The author allows that researchers could speak out, if a “last resort” threshold is exceeded. Because it was unclear as to whether the author believed that threshold was exceeded in Flint, we asked for additional information, and he responded:

From everything I have been able to learn it does indeed look like a criminal activity and, as a citizen, I’m glad that someone stepped in to help. I am just not convinced that it has to be an academic. In fact, for the reasons related to incentives and other expectations from the people who pay our salaries that you have pointed out previously, we seem like a poor choice as watchdogs for the oppressed. If it is mainly a question of being able to speak truth to power, Erin Brockovitch and others who do this full time seem like they would be better watchdogs.  

Let’s put aside the fact Erin Brockovich had already been involved in Flint and no one listened. Even with knowledge of criminal indictments, 12 deaths from Legionella, and entire neighborhoods of children with elevated blood lead, the editorial author is not convincedan academic should have stepped in.

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A NEW FIRST CANON FOR AN ERA OF PERVERSE INCENTIVES?

A close reading of the editorial proposes that our obligations as faculty under the First Canon of Civil Engineering must be modified to better reflect the modern reality of perverse incentives in academia. Since funding from government agencies is now “too precious to lose,” our new over-riding obligation is to protect funding flowing into academia. And even if a researcher believes their “last resort” threshold has been achieved, they should only act after obtaining “the full support of their <academic> community.”

The editorial then provides a hypothetical example: If a researcher at the University of Wisconsin were to expose childhood lead poisoning caused by corruption in the state administration, following our research model to reveal the crime “exposes the <academic> community to potential retaliation from vindictive politicians: I hesitate to imagine what Governor Scott Walker would have done to the already reduced budget of the state’s university.” In classic bystander fashion, the example is willfully silent regarding the tragic fate of children in Wisconsin if academics fail to fulfill their professional ethical obligations and stop a crime. To resolve the unstated dilemma, one must answer the question: To whom are we most loyal– the public welfare or our research funding?

The real danger of putting the academic community or institutional loyalties above the public welfare is captured in an EPA e-mail we obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, in which an EPA employee wrote “I am not so sure Flint is a community we want to go out on a limb for.” By that point, EPA had debated the issue of whether to uphold Federal law in Flint for 10 months. For those amongst us who have doubts about where our loyalties must lie, and whether “Flint is a community we want to go out on a limb for,” the first Canon is there to remind us that public safety, health and welfare is paramount and that we must intervene. It is an ethical imperative.

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. It sends a mixed message to our students – the future leaders of our field – and the public, confirming society’s worst fears that academics have misplaced their priorities. The editorial completely undermines the rationale for having academic tenure in the first place.

DID UPHOLDING THE FIRST CANON IN FLINT REALLY JEOPARDIZE THE SOCIAL CONTRACT?

A key premise of the editorial is that if academics become “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.” Let us examine how our actions in Flint actually did play out in this regard.

Contrary to the hypothesis of the editorial, we believe that our work dramatically strengthened the social contract between scientists and society. “Flint” has drawn many under-represented students to environmental engineering because it provides a clarion call that they might do science in service to their communities and a shining example that we do not exist solely to secure research funding. “Flint” proved that professors have specialized and socially-relevant expertise and that they can work directly with communities to tangibly improve the lives and well-being of real people. “Flint” has secured billions of dollars in new congressional funding for water infrastructure and over $600 million in disaster relief funds for Flint residents to right a wrong that we helped to expose. Further, “Flint” has probably done more to advance the cause of declining American infrastructure than the “full support” of the academic community could ever have– decades of failing grades from ASCE serve as case-in-point.

Furthermore, rather than retaliating, Governor Snyder himself has repeatedly and publicly thanked us for exposing the injustice that occurred under his administration, freed up millions of dollars in State funding for University based research to assist in the recovery, increased funding for his state environmental regulatory agency, and is fighting for an improved Lead and Copper Rule that will set a model for the nation. Thus, upholding the professional obligations of the First Canon had the exact opposite effect of the fears expressed in the editorial. It led to not only immediate help for the Flint community, but also real research dollars to address critical knowledge gaps linking deteriorating infrastructure, corrosion, and public health. The real danger to the social contract arises from following the editorial’s misguided logic.

OBTAINING THE FULL SUPPORT OF OUR COMMUNITY?

Exactly how would one obtain “the full support of their community” before crossing the line? The author of the editorial could not answer that question when we asked. In fact, as evidenced by the fact he would not acknowledge the “last resort” threshold was met in Flint, having such a requirement would guarantee that environmental crimes would continue indefinitely.

The conversation that we should be having is how to give professors the “full support from their community,” to deal with the personal and professional trauma inherent to upholding their professional ethical obligations, such as what we experienced in Flint and previously in Washington DC. The editorial does provide an excellent example of what can be expected for those of us who “cross the line.” Specifically, some in our community will express disapproval due to their unease, “petty jealousy” and “legitimate concerns” over “potential retaliation” to our community’s all-important research funding. Such disapproval usually occurs behind the scenes and we sometimes learn of it second hand, but occasionally the message may be delivered directly, in person or in writing.

We fully expected to be attacked by the agencies who were perpetrating the environmental crimes in Flint and DC, but to be publicly called out by our own community, as exemplified by this editorial in such a prestigious environmental journal, is the type of “support” that creates permanent scars and discourages others from upholding our first fundamental Canon. Especially our students.

In the end, the ES&T editorial provides an unintentional, yet devastating, self-indictment of cowardice and perverse incentives in modern academia. We not only reject its central argument, but remind professors of their obligation to protect the public if they are witnesses to a crime in progress. 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.  

Signed

Dr. Marc A. Edwards

Dr. Amy Pruden

Mr. Siddhartha Roy

Mr. William J. Rhoads

22 thoughts on “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public — but not if it threatens our research funding?

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It screams of truth and gives us facing similar crises and self-conflict the strength to pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off and get back on the high road with heads held high.

  2. Just one question; why do you guys knowinly allow EPA to violate the CWA and do nothing while our open waters still are used by cities as urinals, and people are drinking their upstream neighbor’s urine?
    According to the NEPA of 1969, causing water pollution is unlawful, but so is knowing about it and not doing anything about it. As academics you also know about the public health problems with DBP’s caused by chlorination of partly treated sewage and again academic silence.
    What ever happened to the common sense principle that preventing problems is more important than solving the problems?

  3. No acting in the interest of the public violates the codes of ethics of all ‘professionals’, not publishing comments, one does not like, does not belong in a democratic and free society.

  4. Please remember that you had my support and offer to assist as early as my initial awareness of the situation. And now understand that I stand steadfastly behind your efforts and the purpose for your actions in Flint.

    Mark Twain was once quoted as saying- “Never be afraid to do the right thing, it will gratify some and astonish the rest”. It seems apparent who has been astonished by your commitment to do the right thing.

    My DeTRoiT initiative on LDB is predicated upon this very same premise;
    Do The Right Thing
    Pro Bono Publico (for the good of the people)
    As Soon As Possible

    DTRT-PBP-ASAP, CSC is SASE!

  5. In the National Academies’ text On Being A Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, one of the main obligations of a scientist is “to act in ways that serve the public.”

    In his On Laws, Cicero states, “let the safety of the people be their highest law.” This same credo is generally taken to be paramount to modern engineering.

    Many people in the U.S. today seem to think of academic scientific research as an extremely expensive hobby conducted at public expense and that researchers spend far too much time on this hobby than on teaching students (who pay high tuition). The ES&T editorial cautioning against academic researchers becoming ‘activists’ because of potential negative ramifications for research funding only helps to reinforce this concept of academic research as an expensive, hobby funded by taxpayers. It makes it seem like we care far more about research funding than about serving society.

    I live in Michigan and several years ago I had a very long talk with an employee of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about challenges in the state. She said that the DEQ was way underfunded and understaffed and that the political climate was making it impossible for them to do their job of protecting the environment and public safety. She further said that it was important for academics to step up and speak out about environmental issues in the state.

    How would any of us feel if we lived in Flint Michigan, our children were being poisoned, and an academic researcher failed to be brave enough to step up and do something about it because of fears about ramifications for research funding? This is a fundamental issue of social justice, especially considering that a poor community was and is at risk.

    The researchers at VaTech have done exactly the right thing: morally, ethically, and professionally.

  6. As a retired manager of water quality operations for a mid-size water utility, I’m probably stepping into water that is over my head by commenting, but I’m deeply concerned by the tone of the rhetoric associated with Flint and feel compelled to weigh-in.

    I was initially shocked and surprised by the assertions of the ES&T editorial as reported in this blog. However, after reading the original full text of the editorial, I came away with a different conclusion. I believe the author, David Sedlak, correctly states that researchers should “cross the line” to become an activist only as a last resort. Nowhere in the editorial did I think Marc Edwards was criticized for his decision to cross the line in Flint. In fact, I thought it was just the opposite. Mr. Sedlak also correctly mentions the simple fact that before one crosses the line, one should realize that there will potentially be consequences, including cuts to future funding. This is nothing more than stating the obvious. Finally, Mr. Sedlak suggests steps that we should all be taking to minimize the need for researchers to become activists in the future. Possibly, I needed to read between the lines more.

    I need to also comment on your Emory University presentation (Post: No Surprise: CDC Epically Botches East Chicago IN Lead Poisoning Response). It includes a slide titled “Death of Wang Yue”. The slide shows the dead body of a young child that was run over by a car and subsequently ignored. I guess your point: people also ignored public health crisis in D.C. and Flint. As someone who knows what the death of a child means, your analogy is completely inappropriate. Yes, elevated blood levels in children are a serious public health issue, but it is not the same as a dead child.

    Finally, many Flint residents today are terrified of their tap water; they don’t drink it or bathe in it. The situation has deteriorated to the point that Shigellosis is becoming a problem in the community because people aren’t bathing. Mothers are washing their children with baby wipes. That’s crazy. This paranoia still exists in spite of the fact that VT’s last reported round of lead results had now dropped below EPA’s 90th %tile AL (15 ppb). Test results also show that the simple step of letting tap water run for a few minutes will further reduce lead levels. The fact is that many cities across the U.S., including my own, have similar lead levels and people from these cities are not terrified to drink their water. Obviously, some readers of this blog screamed when they read my last sentence. Nonetheless, the consensus of the health community as represented by the current EPA standard is that the water is safe to drink. So, why is there a lead standard for Flint and one for the rest of the country?

    • You are misinformed. Neither EPA, FEMA, the State of MICH, or VT is yet saying the water is safe to drink. Our 90%’ile lead level could be biased low, because we did not have enough homes with lead pipe in our sampling pool. Flint is not yet meeting the lead and copper rule.

      As for the calm people in your city– did government officials lie to you for 18 months, and cover-up high lead in water and one of the worst Legionairres disease outbreaks in U.S. history? Maybe you should put yourself in the shoes of Flint residents before discounting their fears and calling them paranoid.

      Yes, an unfortunate consequence of a loss of trust in government, is that people change their behaviors in a manner that further harms their health. We have taken a stand on the safety of water for bathing, and have been criticized by many, but we defend Flint residents to this day– even those who criticize us. Our profession betrayed their trust. They deserve our sympathy and understanding, and not ridicule.

      You have also completely mis-characterized my point from the tragic Death of Wang Yue. The point is that being a bystander allows people to get hurt. As in this childs death. As in the neighborhoods of children lead poisoned in Flint, and the 12 people dead from Legionella. All of that could have been prevented. Thankfully, because of people standing up, additional harm was avoided.

      Anyone can watch my presentation at Emory and decide for themselves.
      http://mediasite.sph.emory.edu/Mediasite/Play/4e32af6f589d4aa28bbe5258e80b86a11d

      – Marc

      • I absolutely agree that 18 months of lies has totally eroded the public’s trust in government officials. I suggest, however, that this lack of trust has resulted in what appears to be a double standard with respect to the implementation of the LCR. Consider that besides your data, which you suggest in your comment might underestimate actual lead levels, there is data from MDEQ that show the 90%tile has also declined below EPA’s action limit to 12ppb (http://www.michigan.gov/flintwater/0,6092,7-345-76292_76294_76297—,00.html). About 8% of these samples were >15ppb, which presumably could be reduced with flushing as you found with your testing. MDEQ’s test results are for almost 2000 samples collected between July 1 – October 10, 2016. As I state in my original post, if these results were for any other city in the U.S., people would be drinking their tap water. It appears that the lost of trust in government officials has the current group of officials struggling to find a path to regain the public’s confidence in their tap water. And, so far, their approach appears to exclude following LCR guidelines. I question whether this is the right decision for the people of Flint, or other communities in the U.S.. Question, have EPA, FEMA, MDEQ, or Flint officials published water quality criteria that must be met before they are willing to declare that the water is safe to drink?

        Also, I respectively stick with my comment that your use of the image of the dead body of the child Wang Yue is inappropriate. In my opinion the slide does more to inflame rather than educate the public. This is a mistake. But I agree that people can decide for themselves if it is appropriate.
        http://mediasite.sph.emory.edu/Mediasite/Play/4e32af6f589d4aa28bbe5258e80b86a11d.

        Finally, I’m puzzled why you suggest in your response that I ridiculed the people of Flint in my first post. I deeply respect the resilience and fortitude shown by the people of Flint in dealing with this disaster and certainly do not believe that they should be ridiculed in any way. If I said something that could be mistaken as ridicule, I apologize.

        • Thanks for your comments.

          On the lead issue, before a water is considered “safe” again, two sequential rounds of LCR values below the action level are generally required. Whether this is the standard to be applied in Flint, remains to be seen. They might have 1 round under the action level. I think the State will continued to offer filters for quite a while.

          We have spoken out against the unfounded fears of bathing/showering, spread by certain misguided activists (i.e., Water Defense) based on dubious data, because we could foresee the adverse health consequences. Some criticized us for it but we feel recent events have proven us correct, as you noted. We will continue to call out groups spreading false scientific data that endangers the public.

  7. The 15 microgram per liter lead limit (actually about 1 ppb) in drinking water originates from the WHO who established that a lead intake of 3 to 4 microgram per kg body weight, would not increase the lead blood level in humans to toxic levels. The 15 microgram/l standard therefore was based on a 5 kg bottle-fed baby drinking 3/4 liter of formula, this being his/her sole food intake. The lead standards in drinking water, leaving the treatment plant, prior to 1991 was 50 microgram per liter.
    Like with so many food compounds in our society, ‘new’ research claimes that this 3 to 4 microgram per kg body weight still does increase the lead blood levels in kids and is causing braindamage.
    The issue here is that, when certain standards are not met, should the public not be informed the reason for such standards? If that had happened, people probably still would use their water.

    • Just adding to my previous comment. We soon (already) will see the same problems with the ‘nitrate’ standard of 10 mg per liter in drinking water. This also is based on the nitrate intake of a bottle-fed baby, in order to prevent ‘blue’ babies. This nitrate standard is now also questioned by some researchers.

  8. Google: PDF document titled: Lead in Drinking-water. Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality.

    3. Kinetics and metabolism in laboratory animals and humans.

    Partly quoted:

    Inorganic lead is not metabolized in the body. Unabsorbed dietary lead is eliminated in the faeces, and lead that is absorbed but not retained is excreted unchanged via the kidneys or through the biliary tract (53). Metabolic balance studies in infants and young children indicated that, at intakes greater than 5 μg/kg of body weight per day, net retention of lead averaged 32% of intake, whereas retention was negative (i.e. excretion exceeded intake) at intakes less than 4 μg/kg body weight per day (35). No increases in blood lead were observed in infants with low exposure to other sources of lead and mean dietary intakes of 3–4 μg/kg of body weight per day (54), thus confirming the metabolic data.

    • This is the second time I responded. You are citing a study from 1979 before lead was phased out of gasoline. Blood leads of children in the study were very, very high from this source. In such a situation, effects of lead in diet had a much lower impact than they would today. The same is true of your other source.

      If you finish reading the very same document, it notes that based on this very old data that “In 1986, JECFA established a provisional tolerable weekly intake (PTWI) of 25 µg of lead per kilogram of body weight (equivalent to 3.5 µg/kg of body weight per day) for infants and children.” But that based on new information this has been rejected. It states “JECFA therefore concluded that the PTWI could no longer be considered health protective, and it was withdrawn (122,123).”

      Hence, WHO has withdrawn the outdated guideline you keep repeating. Please stop selectively citing WHO as supporting your assertions.

  9. This is not a study but a background document for the development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality. WHO/SDE/03.04.09/Rev./1
    The 03.04.09 stands for April 3, 2009. And not 1978.
    If you think they are wrong, you should blame all those who wrote these guidelines, I just quoted a paragraph from that document.

    • If you keep reading, the document specifically says the recommendation was withdrawn. In the future, please also cite the key concluding comment, and you are then providing the reader a balanced presentation of WHO’s current position. By giving only half of the story, your prior reports seem to unfairly downplay harm from lead exposure in Flint.

      • If people like to know more about public health and lead, I strongly suggest to read this, easily on Google available, WHO document (WHO/SDE/WSH/03.04.09/Rev/1).
        With lead one of the most common heavy metal in the earth’s crust (13 mg/kg), its presence is not surprising. The lead problems are caused by a high lead concentration level in blood and that depends on the daily lead intake. Nowhere in the document is ‘the daily 3 to 4 microgram per kg body weight not increasing the lead concentration level in the blood’ repealed. The document also states at 80% of the daily lead intake comes from food and the dust and dirt in the air. Furthermore, the lead intake from drinking water not only depends on the lead concentration in the water, but also how much water one drinks. This especially is important considering the daily lead intake of bottle-fed babies.
        Because of high lead concentrations, Flint residents were advised not to drink this water any longer, while the media was claiming that the government intentionally was ‘poisoning’ the public. Many now are only drinking bottled water, while not being informed that the water in plastic bottles with recycle marks 3, 6, 7 and those unmarked, may contain lead, phthalates and BPA’s, equally not very healthy for kids.
        I have looked at recycle marks on plastic water bottles in the grocery store and the most, more expensive brands, do have the Nr. 1 recycle mark, meaning acceptable, but some of the cheaper brands do not have any recycle marking. Shouldn’t we therefore not drink this water? The answer here is that this again depends on the acceptable intake, hence how much water you drink, thereby realizing that acceptable intake criteria may change.
        Since plastic is now commonly used to contain water (especially carbonated drinks with low pH) and other food products, it may be beneficial when public health officials educate the public, so they become aware that certain forms of plastics do leach out lead, phthalates and BPA’s and that therefore their use should be avoided to store food and beverages.

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