Skeptical scientist who challenged environmental regulation sues UCLA

Adam Kissel Vice President of Programs, FIRE
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“Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere,” a study published this year in the prestigious American Sociological Review, showed that Americans’ trust in science has been on the decline for at least 35 years, mainly because of the decrease in conservatives’ trust in science. But there is good reason for trust in universities such as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to be quickly eroding. After 35 years at UCLA, whistleblower and epidemiologist Dr. James E. Enstrom has had to resort to suing UCLA in order to keep his job.

It is sad but perhaps not surprising that some areas of science have become politicized. After all, there is a great deal at stake. In California, Dr. Enstrom and his colleagues have strongly disagreed over research on a particular kind of air pollution and its implications for environmental regulations. Are so many people dying from air pollution in California that the state should pass strict new regulations that would cost taxpayers and private companies millions or billions of dollars? This is a critical question, and smart regulation depends on good science. I have no expertise on what kind of regulations, if any, should be enacted in California. But if the science is incorrect, then policy will be steered wrongly, and that money (if it is spent at all) could be used for more significant improvements to public health.

Dr. Enstrom is the kind of scientist who is willing to ask such hard questions, and he knows how to answer the scientific ones. But UCLA finally had enough of him once he successfully blew the whistle against a member of his own department (Environmental Health Sciences, known as EHS). His efforts led to fellow EHS faculty member and activist John Froines — a member of the notorious Chicago Seven in the 1960s — being temporarily replaced on a panel for the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Several members of the panel, including Froines, had been serving beyond the three-year legal limit on their terms of office.

Enstrom also blew the whistle on a fake Ph.D. degree claimed by CARB researcher Hien Tran. If one of CARB’s senior researchers makes up one of his own credentials, we should at least ask whether that person’s scientific findings hold up.

All of this apparently was too much for UCLA. First, the school depleted Enstrom’s research funds without telling him, and then told him he was out of money — and out of a job. Enstrom fought back and kept his job. Then, his department launched a review of his work and decided that he no longer fit the “mission” of the department where he had been doing exactly what the department claims to be about: studying environmental health. UCLA also invoked vague and previously unmentioned “minimum requirements,” even though his research output was similar to or greater than that of other professors in his department. (Here’s the documentation, including details in Enstrom’s lawsuit.)

Enstrom had strong arguments against every one of UCLA’s claims. Since 2010, with the help of my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), he has worked within the system to keep his job. We helped him hang onto his job for two years. (FIRE has no opinion on the underlying science or its implications for regulation.)

Meanwhile, Enstrom’s situation has received national attention as well as statements of concern from state legislators. Here I am in a Reason.tv video about the case:

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) also took up his cause. David French, an ACLJ senior counsel and a former FIRE president, made many efforts to help Enstrom keep his job without resorting to litigation. Finally, with all internal remedies exhausted, Enstrom sued UCLA on June 13.

We hope that justice will finally be served. Regulators, legislators, and the American public need to be able to trust UCLA — and, indeed, every major university — to protect the academic freedom of scientists so that we are better able to trust the scientific findings they produce. If there is anywhere we need trustworthy scientists who aren’t on a mission to exclude whistleblowers and skeptics, it is the American university.

Adam Kissel is vice president of programs at FIRE.