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 convinced” an academic should have stepped in.
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.
Dr. Marc A. Edwards
Dr. Amy Pruden
Mr. Siddhartha Roy
Mr. William J. Rhoads