The Public Focused Scientist/Engineer | Siddhartha Roy | TEDxVirginiaTech


Fresh out of college, I went to work for a consulting firm. During orientation,
the leaders dished out advice. Amongst them was one pithy counsel
I will never forget. He told us, “Be easy to manage.” Considering how naïve
I really was at the time, I took his advice to heart. I told myself, “Yes, I will be the ultimate team player, I will do everything I’m told. I will be easy to manage.” It wasn’t until I arrived
in graduate school and witnessed firsthand the criminal
actions of scientists and engineers in the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that I realized how dangerous
and yet surprisingly common this line of thinking really is. Make no mistake: the Flint water crisis is one of the most
egregious environmental injustices of our time. For over 18 months, 100,000 residents,
including thousands of young children, were exposed to contaminated
drinking water with high levels of lead. Lead is a potent neurotoxin which causes cognitive
and developmental disabilities, and is especially harmful
to growing fetuses and young children. We’ve known about its dangers
since the Roman Empire. Amongst a whole host of health issues, 12 people died by contracting
Legionnaires’ disease. Flint’s water infrastructure — the complex network
of underground pipes — has been severely damaged. And while the water quality
is slowly improving and the pipes are being replaced now, more than two years later, the water is still not safe to drink. So, people are still in shock. They ask themselves, “How could this have happened?” The short answer is: the crisis began
when an emergency manager, appointed by Michigan’s governor, decided to switch their water source
to a local river to save money. But it continued for so long because scientists and engineers
at government agencies in the state of Michigan
and in the federal government did not follow federal regulations
for treating the water right. What was more, they actively cheated on the law
and orchestrated cover-ups. They ridiculed residents asking for help, while publicly insisting that the brown,
smelly water coming out of the tap was safe to drink. The system at the local, state
and federal levels completely failed to protect our most vulnerable, and an entire population
was left to fend for itself. Now, amidst this injustice,
Flint residents were rallying together. Amongst them were some
amazing women of Flint — mothers concerned about their kids — who came together forming
many grassroots coalitions, and these groups started protesting
and demanding change. The group also reached out
to outside scientists for help, and a few responded. Amongst them was a guy
named Miguel Del Toral, a water expert at the US EPA —
the Environmental Protection Agency — who actually wrote this scientific memo, and sent it to the state of Michigan
and the federal government to bring their attention to this problem. He was characterized a “rogue employee,” and silenced. In collaboration with Flint residents, our research team here at Tech, of students and scientists
led by professor Marc Edwards, conducted citywide testing to prove that Flint’s water
was indeed contaminated, even toxic in some homes. We substantiated what Flint
had been screaming for months, and put it on the Internet
for the world to see. Now, when I was getting involved, when I said yes to this, I had no idea what I was getting into. But every second of this journey
has been totally worth it. This was science
and service to the public. This is what I came
to graduate school for, and this is how I would rather
spend my life. And so this coalition — this unlikely coalition of citizens,
pastors, journalists and scientists — came together to uncover the truth
using science, advocacy and activism. A local pediatrician figured out that the instances of childhood
lead poisoning had indeed doubled in Flint during the crisis. And the state of Michigan was forced
to acknowledge the problem and take steps to correct it. This group and many others
got Flint’s kids protected. A few months later, President Obama came in
and declared a federal emergency, and now Flint is getting
more than 600 million dollars in healthcare, nutrition, education and overhauling
their water infrastructure. However, the arrogance and the callous
disregard for public health shown by scientists and engineers
at these government agencies is beyond belief. These unhealthy cultures
that are festering in these groups, where the focus is on meeting
regulations and checking boxes as opposed to protecting public health, is just appalling. Just consider this email
that an EPA employee wrote, where she goes, “I’m not so sure Flint is a community
we want to go out on a limb for.” The dehumanization of an entire population
could not be more obvious. Now, contrast that to the first
canon of engineering, which, in my opinion, should be
the first law of humanity: “To hold paramount the health,
safety and welfare of the public,” above all else. This is the Hippocratic Oath
we’ve rarely acknowledged, let alone embraced. And so when scientists and engineers,
very much like medical doctors, screw up, people can get hurt — even die. If our professionals and even
students fail to get that, society pays a huge price. Buried deep in history lies
a character I deeply admire — an engineer named Peter Palchinsky. He lived in the time of the Soviet Union. And Palchinsky repeatedly got in trouble
for his radical honesty and willingness to point out major flaws
in the Soviets’ mindless pursuit of rapid industrialization. Everyone was expected to follow orders
coming from the top. Anyone asking questions
or offering feedback was unwelcome. The Soviets had created the largest army
of engineers the world had ever seen, and yet most of them were mere cogs
in a gigantic machine heading for doom. Palchinsky, on the other hand,
implored engineers to look at the economic, political
and social consequences of their actions; in other words, be more public-focused. His fearless voice of reason
was seen as a threat to the political establishment, and Joseph Stalin
had him executed in 1929. Palchinsky’s view on technocrats
is very different from one that is still very popular,
still very common — that of a dispassionate researcher
working in his ivory tower lab, or a nerdy engineer
working in his cubicle. Brilliant, no doubt, yet somehow cut off from the world, shows little emotion — kind of like Spock
from “Star Trek,” you know? This guy. (Laughter) Let’s try and do the Spock salute. I don’t think I’ll succeed … See, I can’t be Spock. Thank goodness I can’t be Spock. (Laughter) I was reminded of this distinction
because a recent article came out in a very reputed scientific journal, which kind of characterized our Flint work
as driven by “youthful idealism,” and “Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities.” It asks scientists to protect
their research funding and institutions at all costs, no matter
how just the cause, and if you think you have to get
involved in something, even if it’s an emergency, try finding an activist group or an NGO, and obtain the full support
of the academic community — whatever that means — before you get involved. Not one mention of our moral
and professional obligation of preventing harm to the public, or the fact that we have
all this expertise, resources and for some, even tenure, to, you know, accomplish this task. I’m not saying every scientist
should be an activist. There are real and sometimes very painful
consequences of speaking up. But to denounce this idea,
this possibility so completely so that you can protect research funding, simply screams of self-serving cowardice, and these are not the ideals
we would want to pass to our students. And so you may think,
“OK, all this sounds great, but you’ll never completely change
organizational cultures, or imbibe mindsets in students
and professionals to look at their work as a public good — science in service to the public.” Maybe so. But could a big reason for that be that we are not training
our students right? Because if you look closely, our education system today
is focused more on creating what ex-Yale professor Bill Deresiewicz
calls “excellent sheep” — young people who are smart and ambitious, and yet somehow risk-averse,
timid, directionless and sometimes, full of themselves. Now, kids … you know, we fell in love with science
when we were kids, and yet we somehow spend most of our time
during high school and college just jumping through hoops, and doing things
so that we can polish our résumé instead of sitting down and reflecting on what we want to do
and who we want to be. And so, the markers of empathy
in our college graduates have been dropping dramatically
in the past two decades, while those of narcissism are on the rise. There is also a growing culture
of disengagement between engineering students
and the public. We are trained to build bridges
and solve complex problems, but not how to think or live
or be a citizen of this world. My undergraduate years
were explicit job preparation, and I cannot tell you how suffocating
and painful it was at times. And so, some people think the solution
to great engineers, to great scientists, is more technical training. Maybe so. But where are the discussions
on ethical decision-making, or building character, or discerning right from wrong? Consider this project
that I deeply love and admire. It’s called, “Heroic Imagination Project.” A brainchild of Dr. Phil Zimbardo, famous for The Stanford Prison Experiment, this program seeks to train
school-going children around the world to look at themselves
as heroes-in-waiting, or heroes-in-training. So, these young minds work over time
to develop skills and virtues so that when the opportunity comes, no matter what that opportunity be, to stand up and do the right thing. In other words, anyone can be a hero. Think about that idea for a second. Why don’t we teach science
and engineering like that — where heroism and public service
are seen as key values, because indeed, it’s often heroism that is not only the antidote
to public indifference, but also to systemic evil
like we saw in Flint. And so, dream with me what a 21st-century scientist
slash engineer could look like: individuals who are driven
to master the sciences so that they can serve society, and are also aware of the tremendous power
their knowledge and decisions have; folks who are developing
their moral courage at all times, and who realize that conflict
and controversy are not necessarily bad things if our ultimate loyalty
is to the public and the planet. These are the people who will
stand up like we did in Flint — not to be saviors or heroes in the media, but altruistic and fundamentally good
actors that you and I can trust. Imagine fostering
such a public-focused mindset in classes, on service trips
and during activities during college or even high school, so that these young minds
will hold onto those ideals when they actually enter the real world, whether that be consulting,
academia, policy making, or even becoming
the president of a country. Some of mankind’s greatest
challenges lie ahead of us; contaminated drinking water
is just one example. We could definitely use more — nay, we desperately need more —
compassionate upstanders and public-focused
scientists and engineers who will strive to the do right thing, and not be easy to manage. Thank you. (Applause)

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