Monday, February 8, 2016

Marc Edwards Thinks Science has Gone Astray

Marc Edwards helped to break the story of lead poisoning in Flint, and in this interview with the Chronicle he lays into American academic science:
Q. I just came back from Flint, and it may not come as a surprise to you that you’re something of a folk hero there. What do you think about that?

A. It’s a natural byproduct of science conducted as a public good. Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.

Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?

A. 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.
Science is expensive. There is very little money around for science in general, so to fund their research scientists have to devote much of their time to formulating research projects and writing grant proposals and the like. As Edwards says, "as a professor, you are your funding network." So who is available to respond to crises as they come up? And who will criticize the bodies that control the grant money when they screw up?

I think what Edward says in response to the first question is very important: people really appreciate science done in their interest. That includes both whistle blowing like what Edward did and work that leads to exciting new technologies. But many people have the sense that most scientists are simply pursuing their own agendas, or those of the people who fund their work; consider, say, pharmaceutical chemists who formulate minimally different versions of old drugs that qualify for new patents. Science in itself is just a method, and whether people support it depends on how it is used. Anti-science populism is not just cranky fundamentalism, but draws on a sense that much science is dangerous to people and the world.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

It's funny - people rail against science being abused by militaries to better kill people, and by corporations to better squeeze out profits, but the blame always goes to science itself, rather than to the forces exploiting science for their own ends.

Similarly, I'm not sure why Edwards is talking about academia in a situation that clearly is the product of irresponsibility within the government. It was The State of Michigan who had a duty to protect the people of Flint, and it was their negligence alone which allowed the crisis to develop. Science wasn't the problem - politics getting in the way of genuine scientific inquiry was. Faced with clear evidence of something wrong with the water, they failed to respond with proper scientific rigor.

Addressing Edwards' statements, universities are strange ecosystems, and academics have always been torn between their pursuit of lofty ideals and the practical concerns of the realities of our education system. But I'm not sure how that's pertinent to the larger issue.

Even the purest, most uncorrupted academic culture could only ever have very little positive effect if our society also lacked equally pure governmental and corporate cultures. What power would professors and graduating students have to counteract abuses in our administration and our commerce? What good is an individual who is devoted to rigorous scientific inquiry if the politics and greed of the people who write their paychecks prevent them from practicing such rigor?