Is Academic Science Hopelessly Corrupt?


Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who uncovered the lead poisoning in Flint, is absolutely brutal about the way funding priorities have corrupted academic science:

We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost. This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends.

….Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?

A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem….I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it.

….Q. Now that your hypothesis has been vindicated, and the government has its tail between its legs, a lot of researchers are interested.

A. And I hope that they’re interested for the right reasons. But there’s now money — a lot of money — on the table….The expectation is that there’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be made available by these agencies….I hate to sound cynical about it. I know these folks have good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that, Where were we as academics for all this time before it became financially in our interest to help? Where were we?

….Q. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be “all of the time.”

I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way….Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.

Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.

In academia these day—and especially in the hard sciences, which are expensive to support—funding is everything. To a large extent, at big research universities faculty members basically work on commission: they have to bring in enough money to pay their own salaries and bankroll their own labs. And when was the last time a salesman on commission badmouthed his own product?

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.