Thursday, February 04, 2016

Science for people not profit

"Academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust," declared Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis.

Edwards explained how the pressures put on academics to secure funding are forcing scientists to abandon work done in the public interest and that similar financial motives are causing government science agencies to ignore inconvenient truths—like high levels of lead in public drinking water. Edwards’ research uncovered high levels of lead in the Washington, D.C. water supply in 2003, and was applied by Flint residents to help test their water after officials with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) ignored their concerns.

The cases of Flint and Washington, Edwards explained, illustrate how the failure of government scientists to acknowledge a problem, coupled with academia's refusal to question their judgement, can drive serious public health crises. He said:
“In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?  I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. 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? We just don’t do these things.” Practicing "heroism" within the scientific community can be a lonely pursuit and that he has "lost friends" simply by asking questions. "I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way," he said of the Centers for Disease Control's widespread misreporting of lead levels in Washington D.C. If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem. When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled," he continued. "The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives." ”

Edwards said, "the idea of science as a public good is being lost."

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1983 allowed the privatization, trademarking, and patenting of inventions that result from federally-funded public research. The key change was in ownership of inventions made with federal funding. Before the Bayh–Dole Act, federal research funding contracts and grants obligated inventors (where ever they worked) to assign inventions they made using federal funding to the federal government. Bayh–Dole permits a university, small business, or non-profit institution to elect to pursue ownership of an invention in preference to the government. Greed has killed public science and public service.

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