A while back, we reported on the difficulties and career damage that can befall academic researchers who undertake controversial studies. The problem, says Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who is a hero of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, lies in “the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty.” (Edwards was also previously involved in uncovering an earlier spike in lead levels in the drinking water of Washington, D.C.) Speaking within an interview he found surprisingly “emotional,” Edwards adds that “[t]he 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.”
Rather than encouraging researchers to take on problems that serve the public interest—a basic function of science and the fundamental reason that citizens support funding for science—Edwards believes those “perverse incentives” make researchers cautious and only concerned with their own interests. “You are your funding network as a professor,” he says. “You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior?”
His arduous but ultimately successful efforts to expose the truth about Flint’s polluted water have cost Edwards a great deal of money and a number of friends, as well as the pain of being “harassed, lampooned, and threatened,”reports. Scientists everywhere ought to give serious attention to Edwards’s analysis and experience.