Marc Edwards' seminar to explore the pursuit of scientific truth amid a culture of tribalism
June 18, 2018
High-profile cases of lead contaminating public drinking water have trained a spotlight on questions of government responsibility and scientific ethics, and magnified fault lines of socioeconomic inequality.
University Distinguished Professor Marc Edwards, who found himself at the center of lead-in-water crises in Flint, Mich., and Washington, D.C., has wrestled with what happens when federal and local governments fail to protect their citizens and scientists and engineers fail to find — or to pursue — the evidence.
He’ll explore those questions in a seminar titled “Truth-seeking in an age of tribalism: Lessons from the Flint Water Crisis and its aftermath,” at 9 a.m. June 22 in 2150 Torgersen Hall on Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus.
The seminar will present the D.C. and Flint water crises as case studies of engineering and scientific misconduct, and argue that when officials shirk their responsibility to the public welfare, and other public figures exploit the ensuing tragedy, citizens themselves can embrace the scientific method, buttressed by traditional activism, to turn the tide.
The seminar is offered as a special event for undergraduate researchers on campus for the summer, but is open to all members of the Virginia Tech community.
Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and a nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality, first won widespread recognition for his years-long investigation into lead pollution in Washington, D.C.
In 2003, he detected startling levels of lead contamination in D.C. homes, and for the next decade worked alongside the district’s residents, and with collaborators in the press and in Congress, to bring the story to light, ultimately demonstrating that the contamination — and lead poisoning it caused in the district’s children — was a result of flawed water treatment protocols.
Edwards’ investigation also uncovered uncovered scientific and ethical misconduct by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For his key role in exposing this public health crisis, Edwards was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007. But Edwards has said his interactions with the government agencies involved left him convinced that Washington, D.C.’s, lead problem would not be an isolated event.
“I was not surprised when Flint occurred,” Edwards said in testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I was expecting a Flint to occur.”
And when Flint mother Lee-Anne Walters reached out to Edwards, concerned that Flint’s public water was contributing to her children’s medical problems, he responded.
In conjunction with Flint citizen activists, Edwards and a team from Virginia Tech coordinated a massive sampling program, which revealed that Flint’s water suffered from serious lead and bacterial contamination. Edwards’ research and advocacy put Flint’s water system in the international spotlight, prompting state and federal intervention and igniting a national debate on water safety.
Edwards came to Virginia Tech from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where, in 1996, the National Science Foundation selected him as one of only 20 young engineering faculty in the nation to receive a Presidential Faculty Fellowship. He completed his master’s degree and doctorate in environmental engineering at the University of Washington and earned his bachelor’s degree in bio-physics from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Edwards leads the ICTAS Center for Science and Engineering of the Exposome; the center is supported by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, which is hosting Edwards’ seminar in collaboration with the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates site on interdisciplinary water sciences and engineering and a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Teachers site on water research. Both sites are led by Vinod Lohani, a professor of engineering education and the director of education and global intiatives at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.