On Friday, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech spoke with William & Mary undergraduate and graduate students about ethics and the importance of prioritizing loyalty to truth and humanity over loyalty to institutions. Edwards’ work helped uncover dangerous levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s water supply.
The lunch, co-sponsored by the Department of Government and the Dean of Students Office, provided a pretext for students from the Law School, the Department of Government, and the Public Policy Program, among others, to partake in an engaging dialogue with Professor Edwards who, though trained as a scientist, made the conversation approachable to his interdisciplinary audience. Paul Manna, the Hyman Professor Government and chair of the department, moderated the discussion.
Edwards opened with a critique of the evolved nature of the scientific and academic community – one that mirrors private industry more than public endeavors, too focused on profits and without a vested interest in the truth. Edwards stated that the academic community’s metric for faculty evaluation – based on the quantity of papers produced and the value of research grants brought in to the institution – has culminated in the staggering statistic that 50% of peer-reviewed scientific articles are premised on fabricated data, begging the question, “what, then, does ‘peer-reviewed’ mean?” His critique of institutions extended beyond academia. Edwards spoke with bitterness about the countless government officials who denied Flint’s claims of poor water quality and who went so far as to alter EPA reports to maintain that the town’s water was up to par with federal standards.
Edwards explained the push-back his investigative work in Flint incited, which included lengthy audits and the loss of grant monies. When questioned about the ideal system that would overcome the conflicting reality of falsified results and the detrimental consequences of rigorous auditing, Edwards described the necessity of balancing an extensive vetting process that would “grind science to a halt” with researchers “pooping out” academic journals to satisfy publication requirements.
Edwards responded to students’ questions of how he has remained loyal to the truth by describing a rousing sense of purpose – the professor stated that for years he got up in the morning feeling he was fulfilling his life’s calling. In addition, Edwards noted that as a researcher he has been incredibly lucky – his work has prompted neither a divorce nor dismissal from his institution.
Edwards preached a cautionary tale against the motivating power of money and institutional pressures, describing with sorrow the necessity of reporting close friends from graduate school for fabricating data in their research. He summarized with a statement about the lonely and thankless job of “being the whistle-blower,” describing a childhood of “worshiping at the altar of science” only to be disillusioned by its duplicity and attacked by the community for undermining scientific research (Edwards sadly noted filing several lawsuits for defamation).
The self-proclaimed “world’s greatest optimist” encouraged today’s aspiring researchers, policy-makers, and global citizens to maintain professional integrity and fidelity to one another and mankind.