Dark Money in Science

, Kallina Crompton, Leave a comment

image via screenshot of VT faculty list

image via screenshot of VT faculty list

Just a few months ago, mothers in Flint, Michigan prohibited their kids from taking baths after actor Mark Ruffalo claimed the city’s water contained dangerous levels of chloroform. Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, who initially blew the whistle on the Flint water lead-poisoning, compared the incident to “someone shouting fire in a crowded movie theater.”

“Mr. Ruffalo became an opportunist, a pseudo-scientist, and he started telling people outrageous things,” said Marc Edwards. “He claimed that you could breathe lead through the water in the showers… and that they found dangerous chemicals in Flint water heaters.”

Although at first the Professor appreciated the support from Ruffalo, he ended up rejecting many of the actor’s false claims because residents became fearful of the chemicals which were necessary to fix the problem.

“These are the same chemicals we have known about for forty years, and we have regulations to protect people,” assured Edwards.

Last week, Professor Edwards spoke at The Atlantic’s Education Summit to discuss the need for reform in the science research world. He worries that the public will lose trust in science, as seen with Flint residents who believed an actor’s comments over the statements made by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Edwards warned, “We could enter a new dark age where some of the knowledge and gains that we have made will be lost because people simply do not trust scientists anymore.”

Interestingly enough, Edwards blames the universities for the public distrust in science. After running a survey with 1960s professors, he discovered that the qualifications for teaching have changed over time. Rather than focusing on who contributed to the most good in the world, today’s universities care more about the number of research papers and the amount of funds by a professor.

“We need more of a balance. Too little of our funding is being devoted to… scientists who are out working with normal people, learning from people about their problems, and then discovering new areas of research.”

Although a professor himself, Edwards wants to end the quantitative metrics in academics and abandon the current science model where money is the driver.

“This system has had very adverse effects on academics,” he lamented. “In some ways, it has made professors cowards.”