They helped expose unsafe lead levels in Flint’s and in D.C.’s water. Then they turned on each other. - The Washington Post
Marc Edwards helped expose dangerous amounts of lead in the water in Flint and D.C. Now, some of the activists he worked with have turned against him.
he issue of whether scientists should engage in activism has become more urgent in the Trump era. For decades, scientists have argued their work should be a nonpartisan affair. It’s a norm so deeply rooted that even scientists who participated in the 2017 March for Science on Earth Day espoused that ideal, saying they were there only in response to the administration’s attacks on science.
Edwards argues scientists may have to assume an activist role when they witness communities facing powerful institutions, such as the state of Michigan. “I would prefer to be able to sit in the office, advise my students and do my research, and that would be enough, but it’s not,” Edwards told me in one of several lengthy phone conversations. Still, as a scientist, he’s not always comfortable having his work cast as activism. He prefers, he says, to call what he does “investigative science,” a blend of “science, investigative reporting and direct collaboration with members of affected communities.”
A few months after that court appearance, the letter criticizing Edwards appeared. He later filed a defamation lawsuit against three of the activists who signed it: Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Melissa Mays, a mother of three in Flint. In his complaint, Edwards claimed that the trio organized a public smear campaign against him, questioning his scientific integrity and motives for working in Flint in social media posts and media interviews. He sought $3 million in damages, saying he has lost some of his grants, potentially preventing him from uncovering contaminated water in other places. Edwards chalks up the activists’ criticisms to professional jealousy and, in Lambrinidou’s case, romantic feelings that were not reciprocated.
“The Defendants harbor various financial, professional and social incentives to make negative and damaging statements regarding Edwards and his work,” the lawsuit reads.
In Flint, Edwards used public records requests to unearth emails showing that officials in Michigan knew the city’s water was contaminated long before they publicly admitted it. Lately, he has used that same strategy to get copies of emails he hopes will explain what caused the activists in Flint and in D.C. to turn on him. And he continues to use his blog to defend his reputation and update readers on his public spats with activists and other scientists.
I asked Edwards if he thought, looking back, that he had been a bit naive not to have anticipated the reaction to his findings that lead levels in Flint’s water had fallen to safe levels. He says he had expected a backlash but not what he views as a concerted effort to destroy his professional reputation. He stands by his actions, which he perceives as truth telling. “It comes down to duty versus self-preservation,” he says. “In a post-truth world, science has become just another weapon of tribal warfare, and rising above that takes courage.”