Crisis in Flint MI caused by ‘institutional scientific misconduct’

By TLB Science Advisor, Dr. David Lewis

In his oral and written testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech blamed scientists and top managers at government agencies for causing, then covering up, high levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, MI. Edwards, an environmental engineer who discovered the lead-contamination, and found similar problems in Washington, DC in 2004, asked: “How is it possible, that the system designed to protect America’s children from the best known neurotoxin (lead) in their drinking water, has betrayed us?”

Citing my book, Science for Sale, Professor Edwards provided Congress with the answer: “Institutional Scientific Misconduct perpetrated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), primacy agencies and water utilities.”

“The very agencies paid to protect us not only failed to do so,” he wrote, “but also revealed their callous indifference to the plight of our most vulnerable.”

Institutional scientific misconduct is a term I coined for a panel discussion at Harvard University in 2011. I used it to describe institutionally-supported scientific misconduct at government agencies and leading universities where scientists publish biased, selective, and even fudged data to support certain government policies and industry practices. This increasingly common form of corruption has far more impact on public health than unscrupulous scientists acting alone just to further their own personal careers.

Dr. Lewis’ article posted in The Oconee Enterprise – Click to enlarge


Skewing data purely for personal gain can cost scientists their jobs, even land them in prison when it puts public health at risk. But institutional scientific misconduct is sanctioned at the highest levels, and often leads to widespread illness and death. Whenever government bureaucrats and corporate executives have a compelling financial or political stake in science, it becomes all about covering up problems, not protecting public health. And, speaking out can be career-ending for even the most accomplished scientists.

Professor Edwards wrote in the Foreword to my book: “Institutional scientific misconduct has gone largely unappreciated and unreported because its practitioners are often the very agencies we have empowered to police scientific integrity in one way or another… [Its] abuses and dangers far exceed those arising from misconduct in industrial science.”

When I finished my presentation in 2011, the moderator asked: “So what, if anything, can be done about it?” I looked at the man sitting beside me on the panel, and said: “Here sits Harvard University’s Vice Provost for Research. He also noted that most scientific misconduct arises from the employee-employer relationship.” Scientists, in other words, are told what they can and cannot publish based on political and economic considerations. “Just think, I said, what an impact it could have if he were to put his foot down, and say: ‘This isn’t going to happen at Harvard University.’” During a break, he walked over, shook my hand, and said: “If I were 25 years younger, I’d join you.”


David Lewis, Ph.D.

Former U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist

David Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.

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