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Views After Flint Crisis

To the Editors:

Many thanks for the excellent journalism in “Flint Water Crisis Yields Hard Lessons in Science and Ethics” (Spotlight, May–June), which presents a case history of a failure of bureaucracies to fulfill their mandate to achieve the goals for which they are established, in this case protecting public health.

This story is a call for action, but the action required is nebulous for most of us. I have worked in national, international, humanitarian, and commercial bureaucracies, and they show sufficient similarity that the behaviors described in the article are predictable and will repeat themselves unless we understand how to prevent and change them. It seems that bureaucracies are so much better than alternatives in implementing policy that we have to live with them. In the present world we have to work in or with bureaucracies, if we want our science to help improve the world.

Ultimately, our behaviors, including those who work in and with bureaucracies, were selected through an evolutionary process. Put simplistically, protecting tribalism and responding to threats through various attack responses seems to be an innate trait in humans.

The politics that establish social goals are important and cannot be neglected. Many of us are involved in setting goals. But once the goals (policies) are established, why do bureaucracies often fail to achieve them? Is the fault in their structure or in how they are managed? The scientific challenge is to devise bureaucracies that harness our inherited tendencies to achieve, rather than inhibit, the goals for which the bureaucracy was established.

The scientific examination of bureaucracies dates back to Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Woodrow Wilson more than 100 years ago, and much work has been done since then. My training in the biological, medical, and public health sciences did not expose me to the sciences of bureaucratic behavior. I gleaned what I could. But that is not good enough. I know that most of my peers are in the same boat.

American Scientist would perform a great service to ask scientists who work on bureaucratic behavior for their insights about what happened in the Flint case and how this case reflects common patterns. How can we deal effectively now with the real-life challenges that this case-history presents? For the future, are there ways in which bureaucracies could be organized and managed that avoid or prevent experiences such as the Flint crisis?

I am grateful for the courage, insight, and dedication of those who battled for the public good described in this article and look forward to guidance on how to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Jean-Pierre Habicht
Department of Nutritional Sciences
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

To the Editors:

The article about Marc Edwards in the May–June issue was intriguing. Dr. Edwards’s dedication to science and truth is commendable. Because much of this article deals with the ethics of agencies, I thought some additional perspective on this topic would be in order:

Some years ago I worked for a government agency that was obviously guilty of numerous ethical lapses, yet despite my complaints and those of others, no one was willing to do anything about it. Fortunately, this particular agency was under the supervision of an elected board. So I quit my job, campaigned for the board, and got elected.

What I learned about trying to change culture at an agency and improving ethical behavior is that it is an issue of changing institutional culture and that it becomes a daunting task at every level from the top to the bottom of the organization.

First, a common cliché is to “follow the money,” but money is not needed to induce unethical behavior. People find this surprising. There are many dimensions to satisfaction in one’s job, and any of these can provide the avenue to corruption. For instance, autonomy in one’s position is immensely satisfying. Yet at the agency involved, there were people granted so much autonomy that they had stopped doing their job and were in fact doing other things that they enjoyed doing more. These employees worried that an effort to clean up the agency would mean for them more accountability and less job satisfaction. These people were numerous, existed at all levels of the organization, and impeded change.

Second, nearly everyone working within an agency feels like family, and so an attack on the ethics of the agency does not invoke introspection, but rather a tribal response of “us” against “them.” A governing board might or might not become part of the “us,” but there is no doubt it will be misled by this group. Furthermore, although problematic individuals can be replaced, the replacements sometimes bring the same bad tendencies with them, or at least they can be assimilated into the current culture faster than they can change it. The effort is a lot like trying to shovel water.

Third, although my agency was indeed guilty of bad behavior and practices, it hadn’t done all the bad things people accused it of doing. Removing ineffective or corrupt managers sets in motion an escalator for potential job advancement. It induces false claims. Someone attempting to clean up an agency has to spend a lot of time sorting through false claims from people hoping to rise within the organization or benefit in some other way. Not all whistleblowers are good people.

Finally, two equally good people can have very different impressions of an event. I am reminded of Rebecca Mairone, who as an executive at Countrywide felt she was cutting unneeded red tape and bureaucracy for borrowers, while government prosecutors saw this as an effort to slip bad loans to investors. She has been vindicated in court, but the underlying lesson is that proving unethical behavior, which is a first step in cleaning up an agency, is a complex task. The potential do-gooder needs to be very careful to not do more harm.

Reforming an unethical agency is a process not unlike science. It requires patience, lack of emotion (while maintaining one’s empathy, perhaps), and a dogged testing of evidence to find the truth.

Kevin Kilty
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Wyoming
Laramie, WY

Dr. Edwards responds:

To address questions about what is happening in relation to the unethical agencies, there is good news and bad news. In Flint, since the declaration of the disaster, all parties (the State of Michigan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]) have been doing fantastic work assisting residents with the recovery.

Our long-standing opinion that water utilities were cheating on lead and copper rule monitoring, in collusion with EPA and state primacy agencies, was confirmed by a series of investigative reports by USA Today, CNN, The Guardian, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other outlets. Americans also woke up to the fact that our children are being exposed to lead hazards in their school water, via a series of newspaper articles and radio reports all over the country. Three state employees at a key agency that perpetrated this environmental crime have been indicted, and our Flint water study group at Virginia Tech has even recouped about 70 percent of what we spent to expose the Flint Water Crisis through GoFundMe and other donations.

The bad news is that EPA still insists they did nothing wrong in Flint, and there is no evidence that the unaccountable technocrats in positions of power at this agency have learned anything at all from the crisis, as was the case for the scandal we exposed at the CDC in 2010 and the recent problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Overall, however, I remain optimistic that we will eventually get these corrupt agencies and our academic culture fixed—because failure is not an option.

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