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Marc Edwards Wins AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award

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Working with residents of Flint, Mich., Edwards and his research team tested the city's water and found that the water was "very corrosive" and causing lead contamination. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineer whose team documented lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Mich., has been awarded the 2018 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Edwards, University Distinguished Professor and the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, was recognized by AAAS for his efforts “to apply his engineering expertise to revealing dangerous levels of lead contamination in water supplies.”

In 2015, Edwards and his Virginia Tech research team engaged with residents in Flint, Mich. to test the city’s water. Residents had been complaining after the city changed the source of its water supply in 2014, and one resident, believing that her concerns were being ignored, contacted and began collaborating with Edwards. The team’s tests of just over 250 homes demonstrated that the water was “very corrosive” and that it was causing lead contamination.

Later studies by a pediatrician in Flint discovered dangerously high blood levels in children living in the same locations where Edwards had found high levels of unsafe water. Research has found that exposure to lead can have adverse neurological and cognitive effects on children. Edwards was later asked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Michigan to help solve the problems that he and his team had detailed.

Edwards was nominated for the AAAS Scientific Freedom & Responsibility Award by Caren Cooper, a professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University and assistant head of the Biodiversity Research Lab at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Cooper wrote that Edwards’ research team demonstrated compassion as they worked alongside Flint residents and led efforts “to protect the health, well-being and future of Flint children and families.”

More than a decade before testing the water in Flint, Edwards engaged in a decade-long battle to expose health problems associated with the Washington D.C. lead in drinking water crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study dismissing any concern related to health risks from the District’s contaminated water. Edwards criticized the study and was vindicated in bipartisan Congressional hearings, which concluded that the CDC report made “scientifically indefensible” claims. The CDC admitted its error the day after the hearing.

In her nomination statement, Cooper wrote that Edwards has devoted his career to advancing research addressing issues “at the nexus of water-infrastructure-public health.”

“Time and again,” wrote Cooper, “he has put his career on the line in service to society and…   to protect public health.”

Edwards was included, alongside other Flint whistleblowers, on the shortlist for the TIME Person(s) of the Year in 2016. He was also named amongst TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World 2016, the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine, Politico Magazine’s Top 50 visionaries who have transformed American politics, and Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 World’s Greatest Thinkers. He was co-recipient of the inaugural MIT Disobedience Award. He earned a bachelor degree in biophysics at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a master of science degree at the University of Washington. He completed a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at the University of Washington in 1991.

The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was established in 1980. The award honors scientists, engineers or their organizations whose exemplary actions have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility. Achievements can include acting to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare; focusing public attention on important issues related to scientific research, education, and public policy by their responsible participation in public debates; establishing important new precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities of scientists; or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award includes a $5,000 prize and a commemorative plaque.

The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award will be bestowed upon Edwards during the 184th AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas on Feb. 16, 2018.

[Associated image: Virginia Tech University]