Keeping the public’s trust is our shared duty

The idea that science can benefit society is at the heart of science’s social contract. That informal accord has delivered on its promise of wellbeing and prosperity for decades, but over time the emphasis has shifted and the conditions attached to funding increasingly demand a quantifiable return. Today, science’s social contract creaks under the strain of limited resources and competing priorities. 

Add to that the influence of metrics such as grant awards and citations and we’re well armed for an assault on skewed priorities in science. But there is a much more worrying consequence of these myriad pressures and incentives, if they lead scientists to neglect or even break that bond of trust with society. 

Recent events in the US city of Flint, Michigan, throw a harsh light on this subject. After the city’s officials delivered a cost-cutting switch to Flint’s water source, a series of safety failings led to homes being supplied with unfit drinking water. Almost immediately, residents reported a deterioration in water quality and complained of illness, particularly among children. But the very agencies appointed to safeguard those citizens responded by dismissing the concerns, insisting that the water was safe. 

The residents of Flint eventually turned to Marc Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech with a track record of investigating public health disasters. A citizen science project followed, and after a lengthy campaign the residents finally have some justice, though the story is far from over.

The extent to which Flint’s citizens had to go to find support is shameful, as is the evidence that state scientists ignored the legitimate concerns of the communities they serve. And academic researchers did not attempt to question the official line, either. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Edwards suggested that the incentives of modern research culture actually act in opposition to science as a social good: researchers effectively gag themselves, concerned that ‘taking on the state’ is a career-limiting move, and none were willing to collaborate with Edwards outside of the auspice of the state and federal agencies at fault. 

The episode echoes the worst parts of John Snow’s work on the cholera epidemic in 19th century London. Sceptical civil servants eventually agreed to disable the Broad Street water pump incriminated by Snow’s analysis, but the outbreak was already abating and the handle was restored once public anxiety had subsided. When an inquiry was proposed to investigate the epidemic (and Snow’s hypothesis), local guardians were aghast that the matter should be dredged up. It’s extraordinary that an issue of public interest should have to compete for attention, and that seeking the truth should be opposed because it is politically unpopular.

Edwards is now a folk hero in Flint, but his whistleblowing, in this case and others, has cost him time and money and has led to professional isolation. The actions of a crusading scientist are laudable and we should be proud of this project’s success, but ‘Scientist protects public’ shouldn’t be a headline. That should be as clear as water.  

Philip Robinson, deputy editor