Michigan’s attorney general said yesterday that three state and local government employees have been criminally charged as a result of an investigation into the toxic levels of lead in the drinking water of Flint, Mich., promising the charges are “only the beginning and there will be more to come.”
Good. Because it is only the beginning, too, for the families whose children could suffer permanent damage as a result of high lead levels.
It is only the beginning for Michigan taxpayers who will pay tens of millions to clean up Flint’s water system and mitigate the human damage already done. And it is only the beginning of another crisis in public confidence in the governments that are supposed to be watching out for us.
Prosecutions are important when public officials charged with protecting citizens’ health and safety fail to do their jobs. We rely on them to be sure, among many other things, that the water we drink and the air we breathe won’t kill us.
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But the response to the horrors in Flint must not end with a few, or even a lot, of successful prosecutions. There is a larger systemic danger, one that Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who helped Flint residents prove their water contained toxic levels of lead, has described repeatedly. It’s a financial rewards system that discourages academic scientists like himself from serving the public interest.
In an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year, Edwards, who was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” in large part for his work revealing a similar problem in Washington, D.C. in 2003, described how hard it is for scientists to challenge the public agencies they depend upon to fund the research that’s drives their careers.
“You are your funding network as a professor,” Edwards explained. “When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior?”
It’s a sobering question, one that should haunt politicians and academicians long after the Flint prosecutions are history.