Marc Edwards, Professor of Engineering at Virginia Tech
0:00 Scientists are the last to look inward
3:42 What went wrong at the CDC with Flint and DC water crises?
6:48 Why was Flint a different story from DC?
10:00 The idea of science as a public good is getting lost
14:08 Every carrot for scientists based on qualitative system
17:55 Is there a war on science today?
22:10 Bayh-Dole Act put us on a slippery slope
24:33 Life as a whistleblower
Marc Edwards is telling a different story than the one most of us have been reading and hearing lately. But then he’s used to it.
Marc was the engineer from Virginia Tech who was called one day in September, 2015, by a resident of Flint, Michigan. A Ms Lee Ann Walters wanted Marc to check out her water. When Marc and his team got to Flint they uncovered super high levels of lead in the potable water, with over 100,000 people exposed to high lead levels and 12,000 people with lead poisoning. You know the rest.
But you may not know that a very similar story to Flint played out in the nation’s capital in 2003. A Washington DC water crisis led to a hearing in which Congress found that the CDC had released “scientifically indefensible” reports on the water.
Marc Edwards exposed those reports and lost a contract with the EPA over it.
Aghast at the world of academic science which he says is "gamed by a system of quantitative incentives" and at government agencies who often overlook the truth, Marc now takes aim at the whole system of science. Last year he co-authored a report Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition. The report warns of a tipping point where science “itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age."
The integrity of science has been a major theme here on the program, so while Marc is not a biomedical researcher, his experience in exposing bad science resonates within our own life science community.
In line after quotable line (“The idea of science as a public good is getting lost. In science our product is truth, and our brand is trust. The greatest proportion of truth seekers are not going into science as opposed to other human endeavors."), Marc fillets today’s scientists in government and academia, arguing that the system of science is skewed towards quantitative markers rather than quality: the pressure to publish more papers each year, citations, how much funding, etc.
Marc thinks things have gone so wrong that the war on science today (and yes, he does think there is a war on science), is more the fault of the scientists than any political movement. Somewhat with irony, but more with sadness, he says:
“The Flint water crisis was so bad it restored my faith in politicians. I mean that’s how screwed up it was. The politicians behaved themselves really well. The people who have been indicted are the scientists and engineers."