Marc Edwards is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, and has previously held a professorship at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is an expert in water engineering and safety, and was integral in exposing the Flint water crisis of 2014 and the Washington D.C. water crisis of 2000–2004. He was awarded the President’s Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers as a result of his work in the field, and has also been named in lists of the most influential people in the world by outlets such as Fortune, TIME, and POLITICO for his work as the principal whistleblower in the Flint cover-up and fraud.
The Politic: You call yourself both a scientist and an activist. What motivates you to do the sort of activism that you do?
Marc Edwards: Well, for me, I think it starts with an observation that was made by Mark Twain. He once said, “Truth is mighty, and it will prevail. And there’s nothing the matter with this except for that it ain’t so.” The scientist is trained to be a truth-seeker and a truth-speaker, and if only the world worked that way, you would not have to take on the distasteful role of being an activist—distasteful to scientists at least. Because you’re always hoping that truth will prevail, and that people will listen to reason. And so, it’s disconcerting when you realize that facts don’t matter sometimes to people in power, and it’s unfortunate, but being a scientist does not relieve you of your duties as a citizen and a human being.
Being a scientist does not give you a license to be a bystander. So when you think you’re witnessing a crime, especially when it’s being committed by your professional colleagues, who are meant to be paid environmental policemen but are becoming environmental criminals, I cannot look away. I understand the criticism, and it wasn’t easy for me to take on this distasteful role, but I will not live in a world where scientists and engineers break laws and harm innocent children.
You’ve talked about switching into the role of an advocate for the public after the DC water crisis, 13 years ago. Is there something specific that inspired you to do so?
It was shame that people in a job like mine, were betraying the public trust. We view science and engineering as a gift to humankind, because it’s about making the world a better place to live, and then you realize that there are people who betraying trust and hurting people. It’s similar to a realization when you’re in the Catholic Church and you realize there’s a problem with pedophilia. What do you do? Everything you’re taught professionally encourages you to look away, and to pretend it’s not happening, and to protect your friends and your institutions and your funding. But we’ve got a problem–shame is the motivating factor, and I acted accordingly.
You bring up the problem of conflicts of interests in academia and research. I’m curious about how that can be fixed.
We wrote a paper about perverse incentives in academia earlier this year. Science, engineering, and academia should be a higher calling. You should be serving a higher purpose. In the past, we’ve better lived up to that ideal than we are in this climate of hyper-competition. Modern academia too much values funding, fame, and citations. It’s all about us, and it attracts a certain type of narcissistic personality. Too many who are altruistic see what’s going on and get out of the game early. So I think academia is largely failing to live up to its ideal, and we’re a product of our climate, which is a hyper-competitive environment that permeates just about everything academics do these days. It is a sad commentary on what we value, and it is very dangerous to the future of science and its relationship with society, and I think we’re living through a well-deserved backlash against us [scientists] and our failings. People are asking, “Why is there an anti-science tenor in society? What is happening between science and society?” And I would argue that if we met our enemy, it is us. We are too frequently not deserving of the public trust. We have to get our own house in order, and if we were doing the type of work that was for the public good, we wouldn’t be living through this current backlash.
In the case of Flint, the work you were doing was not that expensive, and it obviously led to a massive scandal, but you still had to pay for it out of your own pocket. Why was there not money available for work of that magnitude?
Because, historically, there’s never been a pot of money to save the world. Injustices are allowed to flourish because there are people who do not want you to know what is happening. That’s why injustices are allowed to occur today, because no one is shining a light on these things. If you shine a light on what is happening, everyone is appalled. So I consider myself the most optimistic person on the planet because I really feel that if you expose these problems, there’s something [about the Flint scandal] that makes everyone angry, and they all stepped up to help. The response to help Flint children has been almost unprecedented—$600 million of relief to a city of 100,000 people.
I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that crises like the one in Flint water happen, but I’m interested in why the authorities thought they were going to get away with it, considering some of the problems with the water were so easily observable and so cheaply avoidable. Why were basic safeguards not used?
This kind of thing happens all the time, and people don’t learn about it. The only thing unusual about Flint is that they got caught. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but there are many, many Flints out there. It’s so rare that people stand up and expose scientific fraud when it’s perpetrated by a government agency. The analogy I’ll draw is policing; for years and years, before we had videotape, we always erred on the side of believing a policeman, since they’re paid to defend good. What would we do if the policeman was the criminal? To this day, we don’t have an answer to that question. We’re working on it. But what do we do when our public servants are behaving in a criminal way? We don’t have a check or balance on that. The vast majority of civil servants are great people doing their job, but you can also be sure that a certain fraction are incompetent, arrogant, criminal-minded people, and while it’s a small fraction, it’s incredible how much damage they can do before getting caught.
I read about Ranger, Texas and other cities where there is clearly a similar problem. And I read first-hand accounts from citizens where the water is clearly not right—it makes you itch, it smells wrong, or whatever. You don’t need to be a scientist to figure that out. So why is it so easy to get away with these water problems?
Well, because there’s nothing illegal about having bad water that looks horrible, stains your laundry, and gives you itchy skin. There’s no law against that. There’s hundreds of towns who I’m dealing with right now that have that water coming out of their tap, and it’s a horrible situation for these people. I’m going to work to expose these problems and bring the day closer when we, as Americans, say that this is not acceptable. They’re paying outrageous amounts of money for water that isn’t really suitable for anything but flushing toilets. But that’s the reality for too many of our citizens who live in post-industrial and rural America. Our paradigm says that you get the water that you can afford. If the only water that you can afford is crappy, as long as it doesn’t break the law in terms of lead and harmful bacteria, there’s nothing illegal about that. The problem in Flint is that the water is not only bad, but also breaking the law, because there’s not enough money to meet the law. As [a town official] in Ranger, Texas said, “Yes, we’ve got problems, but we don’t have seven million dollars to fix them.” These are cities and towns that have been left behind. In many cases, they’ve lost 60 or 80 percent of their population, and they’re struggling to maintain their infrastructure, and they’re also paying outrageous water bills. People take shortcuts and cover up the fact that the water doesn’t meet federal law, because there’s no money to improve it. A paradigm shift needs to occur.
After citizens uncovered the scandal in Flint, and an EPA official wrote a memorandum about the problem, it seemed clear that the coverup was being exposed. I’m wondering why Flint officials doubled down and tripled down. What’s in it for government scientists to deepen their corruption in this way?
Because it’s not clear that they’ll be exposed. Ninety-nine times out of 100, they’ll get away with it. It’s a miracle that this problem was exposed. They’ve got all the power and the trust, and it usually goes unquestioned. Most of these folks have gotten away with this thing over and over. I mean, no one gets into this profession to poison a city, destroy its infrastructure, and kill 12 people. No one wants to do that. But it starts out innocently; they look the other way, they get used to covering things up, and a certain amount of arrogance sets in. The original mistake was innocent enough. They forgot follow federal corrosion control law, and didn’t use a corrosion inhibitor that would have cost only $100 a day. It’s all the little lies that add up to a big lie. It’s the coverup that is inexcusable, and the original mistake would have been so easy to fix. It would have taken one phone call. So at the end of the day, we’re scratching our heads, because they worked overtime to try to cover it up. No true scientist would have such a mindset.
Do you think Flint will discourage government scientists and engineers from trying similar coverups in the future?
Well, the message you send in response to a disaster like Flint is all-important. In the DC crisis, no one said sorry, no one was fired, because that’s how effective that coverup was. That’s why people lie, because they can evade responsibility and keep their jobs. If they get away with it, it reinforces this culture of arrogance. The message that is sent when we actually hold people accountable is that what they’ve done was wrong. A verdict is rendered by the public. Now, people at other government agencies don’t want to be like those people in Flint. They don’t want to be indicted. They decide that the next time, they won’t look the other way. The judgement rendered by society is very powerful. It’s been a very positive thing to see how the the government in Michigan has responded. Reform is inevitable, and hopefully that day of reform is coming closer.
Is there a future for whistleblowing that’s more efficient or more practical than just individual whistleblowers like you, who do great work but can’t possibly catch everything?
Society, as a whole, has to value whistleblowers more. Because historically, they’ve always been the eyes and ears of the public, the instrument bringing justice. You need these brave people to speak out and expose these crimes. How rare is it that people are more allegiant to the truth and to humankind than to their friends? That’s what a whistleblower is. When I talk about whistleblowing, or what I did, many people say thank you, or that what I did was incredible. Because they feel that they could never betray their friends. And I get that, because it isn’t easy. But it is something that we have to talk about more openly, about the barriers that prevent us from doing the right thing in these circumstances, and about the disdain that society sometimes has for them. The words that are used in the dictionary to describe the term whistleblower are all negative; they’re words like “betrayer.” Having a just society is completely dependent on these people, though.
A few quick last questions. Where do you get your news?
The Wall Street Journal.
What place would you most like to visit?
Rural America. I’ve really enjoyed the friends I’ve made there. I grew up there.
If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you be doing?
Quite possibly I’d be homeless. Academia is for those who are afflicted by the disease of curiosity; we have no other option.
Which living person do you admire most?
Probably the amazing whistleblowers that I worked with on the Flint water crisis. There were many.
Thank you so much.